A funny thing happens when opposing teams line up with three defensive linemen in passing situations: None of the rushers ever seem to go up against Stephen Neal.
They attack Matt Light at left tackle. They attack Nick Kaczur at right tackle. They attack Dan Koppen in the middle. They even sometimes go after Logan Mankins at left guard.
But they never seem to go after Neal.
And for good reason, apparently: According to ProFootballFocus.com, a site that breaks down each player each week and awards grades on each play, Neal has been the best offensive guard in the NFL so far this season and, according to their point system, the Patriots' most valuable player on offense or defense.
Neal, RG, 17 points
Vince Wilfork, NT, 14.3 points
Tom Brady, QB, 12.5 points
Tully Banta-Cain, OLB, 10.5 points
Nick Kaczur, RT, 6.5 points
"I'm going to have to knock on some wood now," Neal said with a chuckle. "I'm just trying to get out there and practice just as hard as I can and go out there and play as hard as I can. Whatever happens, happens. I can't control it."
A look at the film from the Patriots' game against Denver -- according to the crew at PFF, Neal's best game of the season -- reveals that Neal consistently handled defensive tackles and defensive ends one-on-one. When asked to run-block, he consistently steered his assigned defenders away from the play. When asked to pass-block, he did that, too. He even got out on a couple of screens and threw a key block to spring Sammy Morris for a big gain.
It's tough to measure the effectiveness of offensive linemen without breaking down every play. The PFF crew, though, breaks down every play -- and it gives us a pretty good idea of how the Patriots' offensive linemen stack up across the NFL:
1. Nick Mangold, Jets: 21.5 points
2. Jake Grove, Dolphins: 12.1 points
3. Shaun O'Hara, Giants, 10.3 points
7. Dan Koppen, Patriots, 6.2 points
1. Neal, Patriots: 17 points
2. Jahri Evans, Saints: 16.3 points
3. Evan Mathis, Bengals: 14.2 points
35. Logan Mankins, Patriots: minus-0.4 points
(Mankins was charged with a minus-5.2 against Tampa Bay. Four of those negative points were penalty-related.)
1. Joe Thomas, Browns: 14.5 points
2. D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Jets: 11.7 points
3. Vernon Carey, Dolphins: 10.1 points
6. Nick Kaczur, Patriots, 6.5 points
(Kaczur has been far from well-rounded: He was credited with a 7.8 on pass-blocking but a minus-1.8 on run-blocking.)
7. Sebastian Vollmer, Patriots, 6.4 points
45. Matt Light, Patriots, minus-3.8
(Light was charged with a minus-4.3 against Baltimore.)
The Patriots have had a terrific offensive line throughout their run of dominance this decade -- and along with Pro Bowler Matt Light, Neal has been a constant throughout.
But this season might be the line's best season yet. Brady has been sacked just eight times through seven games and is on pace for a career-low 18 sacks this season.
"Our job is to block for the running back and to not get the quarterback massacred back there," Neal said. "If we're not doing a good job, we're going to hear about it from you guys -- and everybody. We've got to go out there and do our jobs the best we can. I'm not going to catch any touchdowns, so I've got to block."