An interesting article was posted on ESPN.com earlier this morning which touched on the need of New England’s offensive line to step up their game this season as Patriots quarterback Tom Brady gets ready to return to the field.

Brady has definitely been knocked around over the past few years. While the stats don’t reflect this in terms of the number of sacks (26 in 2006, and 21 in 2007), ESPN pointed out that he’s been hit while throwing 86 times, tied for the most with Cincinnati Benglas quarterback Carson Palmer. Coming off of a major injury opposing defenses didn’t show Palmer any sympathy when he came back, and Brady can obviously expect the same treatment when the regular season begins.

Looking at the past couple of seasons aside from Stephen Neal, injuries haven’t been the issue. Last season Matt Cassel took his fair share of hits and ended up leading the NFL in sacks, being taken down 47 times.  The starters were in the lineup for the majority of the season as Russ Hochstein missed week one, while Nick Kazcur missed week seven and eight.  Granted many of those sacks were of Cassel’s own making due to the fact that he initially held onto the ball far too long, but the protection could have been better.

During the 2007 undefeated regular season, Stephen Neal missed weeks 2, 3, 11, 14, 15, 16, and 17, while Dan Koppen sat out week 5. That year Brady was sacked just 21 times. However during the post season he was sacked 8 times, five of which came during the Super Bowl.

The incentive is there for better play, as both Neal and Kaczur are entering the final year of their contracts. The Patriots also brought in some younger blood after drafting three offensive linemen. They selected second-round tackle Sebastian Vollmer, fourth-round guard Rich Ohrnberger and fifth-round tackle George Bussey. How big of an impact these guys make remains to be seen, with training camp still well over a month away.

So far all reports indicate that Brady has shown no ill-effects and appears poised and ready for his return to the gridiron. Many compare his injury to what Palmer dealt with. But the difference (which was a blessing in disguise) is the fact Brady went down in week one, and had four additional months of rehabilitation. Palmer was taken down during the playoffs, and really wasn’t quite himself the following year. The additional rehab time for Brady helped him be ready for the recent OTA’s, which may not have happened if he had gotten hurt later in the year.

Needless to say the guys up front are well aware of how important it will be to keep opposing defenses off of their returning signal-caller. Hopefully they’re up to the task when the season begins.