FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — There were a lot of things wrong with the New England Patriots early in the season. But if there was one unit that bore the brunt of the criticism, it was the offensive line.

The five guys up front couldn’t open holes for the running backs and they certainly couldn’t protect Tom Brady.

In the first four games, the line gave up 10 sacks. Brady developed happy feet and seemed more worried about where the pass rush was coming from than finding open receivers.

And who came blame him? He had nowhere to move. In addition to the sacks, he was hit 17 times in those four games.

Funny how things change.

The Patriots have won six straight games and own the best record in the AFC (8-2). Brady has been sacked just six times during the streak — and only twice in the last four games, for a total of two yards.


“It’s a great group and they’ve really come together,” he said Wednesday of the offensive line. “It’s such a selfless position to play. You really don’t get mentioned unless something goes wrong.”

Yeah, he’s got that right.

But when a team is playing as well as the Patriots are — and when that team runs for almost 250 yards in a huge road win, as New England did in Sunday’s 42-20 thumping of Indianapolis — the offensive line gets some love.

“They set the tone for our team, certainly for our offense,” said Brady.

The line is going to have to be at its best on Sunday. Detroit (7-3) comes to Gillette Stadium with the NFL’s top-ranked defense. The Lions gave up just 46 yards rushing to Arizona last week and lead the NFL by allowing just 3.03 yards per rush and 68.8 rushing yards per game.

They are second in the league with 79 negative plays, totaling 313 yards in losses, and second in third-down defense, allowing only 45 of 128 third-down conversions (35.2 percent).


And they have some of the nastiest defensive players in the league: ends Ezekiel Ansah and Jason Jones, tackles Ndamukong Suh and C.J. Moseley.

“This is one of the biggest challenges they’re going to face,” said Brady. “We’ve got to kind of meet force with force and stand up to the challenge and see if we can go out there and make a bunch of good plays.”

If the Patriots are going to continue their winning streak, the offensive line is going to have to somehow negate Detroit’s defensive line.

“I mean, I don’t think you want to step back from any challenge,” said offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer. “They’re really good. They’ve proven themselves a good defense. We’ve got to stand up to them.”

During the six-game win streak, Brady has become confident in the pocket and it is showing in his play. He is moving around and taking the time to go through all his options.

What’s the difference?


Well, a lot of folks point to the fact that the Patriots have settled on a permanent group of starters on the offensive line. After shuffling players in and out in the first four games, they now have Nate Solder at left tackle, Dan Connolly at left guard, rookie Bryan Stork at center, Ryan Wendell at right guard and Vollmer at right tackle. They still play Marcus Cannon occasionally. And last week rookie tackle Cam Fleming, who missed practice on Wednesday after injuring his ankle against the Colts, was huge in the win in Indianapolis, lining up as an extra tight end on many plays.

But the starting five has been consistent and has really played well.

“A lot of what we do is based on trust,” said Connolly, a team captain. “You’ve got to be able to trust the guy next to you. You’ve got to trust that he’s working hard and you’ve got to work just as hard as he is.”

Connolly said having a stable lineup is important. But he knows that can only go so far.

“I mean, when you don’t have a new guy next to you that definitely helps,” he said. “But like it happens every year on every team, on our team, somebody new is going to be in there. Somebody gets hurt. So it always helps to have those lineups where you have different guys. You’re only going to get a better unit if more guys can work together well.”

Connolly, in his seventh year with the Patriots (and playing his third position, having been at center and right guard previously), said he doesn’t have a simple explanation for the improvement, only that it’s something the players expect of themselves.

“I just know that we’ve got a good group of guys, that we try to work as hard as we can and try to just get better,” he said. “Even though the games have shown that we’ve done well and we’re winning right now, there’s always things that we can improve on. Every guy takes it upon himself to watch the film, take the coaching points and really try to improve on what we can.”

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