By: Christopher Price
November 15, 2005

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He's the man in the middle.

Since he first arrived in 2003 in Foxborough as a fifth-round pick out of Boston College, Dan Koppen has been a bedrock along the Patriots' offensive line. Taking over at center in Week 2 of the 2003 season after an injury to starting center Damien Woody, the rookie became Lou Gehrig to Woody's Wally Pipp. Since that weekend, he's started every game since for New England, stringing together 40 consecutive starts over a two-plus year span -- a streak second only to Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady.

At the end of the year, New England Head Coach Bill Belichick felt comfortable enough with Koppen to let Woody leave for the Lions via free agency. In the meantime, Koppen has become the captain of the offensive line, stepping neatly into the role of o-line leader and becoming one of the big reasons behind the Patriots' offensive success the last two years.

However, in the third quarter of Sunday's win over the Dolphins, Koppen suffered an injured left shoulder and did not return. Belichick didn't discuss the injury at Monday's press conference, saying only that the media would have to wait for the injury report on Wednesday.

But as it turns out, Belichick didn't wait that long. Yesterday afternoon, New England placed Koppen on injured reserve, sidelining him for the rest of the season and dealing a big blow to a Patriots' offense that is suddenly suffering almost as many key injuries as the New England defense.

Running back Kevin Faulk, offensive lineman Matt Light, tight end Daniel Graham and wide receiver David Givens were all sidelined Sunday, and running back Corey Dillon left Sunday's game after one play from scrimmage. But the loss of Koppen is a major setback for an offensive line that is already starting a pair of rookies in Logan Mankins (left guard) and Nick Kaczur (left tackle).

"The center, probably in any NFL offensive system, has a certain degree of control over the offensive line,” Belichick said Monday when discussing Koppen. "Just like a quarterback does when you're in the middle of the formation, like a middle linebacker or a safety does on defense.

"Those positions kind of have control over some of the positions further away just because they can see the whole thing and the communication is a lot easier from the inside out than it is for a tackle to make a call,” Belichick added. "That's always going to be the case. Dan does a good job of that.”

It appears Belichick has enough faith in Russ Hochstein to fill the void. On Sunday, Hochstein stepped in at center after Koppen went down and held the fort as Brady guided the Patriots to another fourth-quarter comeback.

Hochstein is a backup lineman who has knocked around the NFL since he broke in with the Buccaneers in 2001. Around these parts, he's perhaps best known for his role as Warren Sapp's comic foil in the days leading up to Super Bowl XXXVIII. Appearing on ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption,” Sapp suggested that Hochstein wouldn't be able to block show hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, let alone the Carolina defensive line. Of course, Hochstein ended up getting the last laugh -- he was part of a New England offensive line that didn't allow a single sack in the win over the Panthers.

His brief interlude with fame aside, Hochstein has been a part of the last two Patriots' Super Bowl teams, having drawn the start in many key games -- including the 2003 AFC Championship Game and the aforementioned Super Bowl XXXVIII -- at left guard.

"Russ has good experience in our system,” Belichick said of Hochstein.

In addition to placing Koppen on IR, New England announced yesterday they have signed free agent cornerback Artrell Hawkins and free agent offensive lineman Gene Mruczkowski. The team also said defensive back Randall Gay has been placed on injured reserve with an ankle injury.

Christopher Price covers the Patriots for Boston Metro and He can be reached at [email protected].