FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Bill Belichick kept it short and to the point.
The New England Patriots' coach didn’t expound further. After all, not much else needs to be said, as it is obvious Donald and the Rams' across-the-board pass rush represents one of the Patriots' biggest concerns in Super Bowl LIII.
But here’s the good news: New England's offensive line is playing its best football at the most important time.
Tom Brady is the only quarterback who hasn’t been sacked in the playoffs, and Sunday’s AFC Championship Game was particularly impressive, with Belichick noting the following stat line in his weekly breakdown of top plays on the team’s official website: zero sacks, 5 pressures, 46 pass attempts.
The week before, against the Los Angeles Chargers' pass rush, Brady attempted 44 passes and was hit twice.
This is part of what led Brady to call 70-year-old Dante Scarnecchia the “greatest offensive line coach in the history of the NFL” in his weekly interview Monday on sports radio WEEI.
Now in his 35th season in the NFL, and 33rd with the Patriots, Scarnecchia is often seen running sprints with players before practice. He’s a no-nonsense coach, but he's also a calming influence during games, one who will put his arm around players after a job well done, as he did Sunday night behind the scenes with starting left tackle Trent Brown.
Behind the scenes from Sunday night: As starting left tackle Trent Brown returns to the locker room, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia catches up to him to offer congratulations (video by ESPN producer Andrea Pelkey). pic.twitter.com/ys4eVFjxkf— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) January 21, 2019
Brown, of course, was the big question mark entering the 2018 season. The Patriots had lost starting left tackle Nate Solder in free agency, and the replacement plan was either Brown -- who had been acquired from the San Francisco 49ers along with a fifth-round pick in exchange for a third-rounder -- or 2018 first-round selection Isaiah Wynn.
Brown received early work at left tackle in spring practices, and when Wynn tore his Achilles in the preseason and was lost for the remainder of the year, the Patriots' choice had been made. The hot-button question asked throughout New England at the time was, "What can Brown do for you?"
A lot, it turns out.
The largest player in the NFL at 6-foot-8 and 380 pounds (he says he is closer to 370), Brown had only started two games at left tackle in his career upon joining the Patriots. But he expressed confidence in his ability to make the switch, and Scarnecchia never wavered in his confidence in Brown.
“He coaches us hard, but he loves on us as well," Brown said. "I think everybody respects him here. He’s been doing it for a long time. I love him, that’s for sure.”
Having third-year left guard Joe Thuney aided Scarnecchia’s belief that Brown could fill the void, as Scarnecchia noted multiple times throughout the season that Thuney’s presence was critical based on how often the left guard and left tackle work together on combination blocks.
Thuney, a 2016 third-round pick out of NC State, is on the cusp of accomplishing something no player in the NFL has ever done before. According to Elias, he would be the first player in the Super Bowl era to start in the Super Bowl in each of his first three seasons in the NFL. He also played every offensive snap this season, as his overall steadiness and consistency contributed to Belichick calling him one of the team’s best players earlier this season. That's notable as Thuney projects as the player most likely to be opposite Donald (who had 20.5 sacks this season).
Meanwhile, starting center David Andrews has quickly emerged as a team leader and a heady, scrappy presence at the heart of the line of scrimmage. After joining the team as an undrafted free agent out of Georgia in 2015, he has been elected a captain in each of the past two seasons. Fittingly, he was the first player to greet all of his teammates in the locker room at Arrowhead Stadium following Sunday’s overtime victory in the AFC Championship Game.
Starting right guard Shaq Mason is one of the best players in the NFL, which the team acknowledged in signing him to a lucrative contract extension earlier in August. And right tackle Marcus Cannon is the veteran of the group, a 2011 fifth-round pick out of Texas Christian who overcame non-Hodgkin's lymphoma as a rookie.
“He means a lot," Cannon said. "We wouldn’t be in the position we are if it wasn’t for his great leadership. He always knows the right thing to say and how to get the best out of each of us. That’s why every day we try to come in and take heed to what he’s teaching us, and during the game, that might be the reason some of us are trying to do so well. We don’t want to go to the sideline and have disappointed Scar.”
“There’s a lot of unselfish, hard-working guys in that group," Belichick said. "You see that every week when they compete."
And as for Scarnecchia, the coach leading them, stories of his office light coming on at 3:30 a.m. are legendary around the Patriots' facility.
“I don’t think anybody works harder than him and we have a lot of guys that work hard here,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “He is incredibly well prepared and detailed in his preparation for the opponent and in terms of his preparation for the players that he’s responsible for coaching on a daily basis. He’s extremely thorough.”
“He’s a great communicator and a great teacher of the fundamental aspects of the game of football,” McDaniels said. “Any player would tell you that in order to be good in this league, you’re going to have to be good fundamentally and technically, and nobody’s a better teacher that I’ve worked with on that stuff than Dante. He’s just a great teacher, great person, great, great football coach.”
Mason said Scarnecchia is also a great motivator.
“Day in and day out, he’s on us, he’s pushing us," Mason said. "He gets the best out of us, and we all love playing for him, want to play for him. We’re all playing for each other, but we’re also playing for Dante because we know how much he puts into us.
"We like giving it back to him."