Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Without Mayo, Patriots' run defense lacks zest

Sealver Siliga is something else, huh?

While the 6' 2", 325 pound brick wall has helped the New England Patriots' run defense in all facets of the focus, his true impact has come as a simple addition by subtraction - because, truth be told, the rushing figures aren't really that better at all and, contrary to popular belief, they weren't that bad to begin with.

What he does is relegate tackles Joe Vellano and, to a lesser extent, Isaac Sopoaga to the depth players that they are, which makes them more effective in the limited roles that they excel in.
Could someone like Ebner account for the weak side?

But with negativity and accountability being human nature - meaning finding someone to blame - ever since the defense lost nose tackle Vince Wilfork, tackle Tommy Kelly and weak-side linebacker Jerod Mayo to season-ending injuries in consecutive weeks, blame has been placed on the run defense for allowing the opposition to stay in games with the Patriots...

...and it has to a certain extent, but mostly when teams use unconventional methods of achieving that success, like a scrambling quarterback or an end around to a speedy wide out - but that is just a small area of focus as lack of execution on all levels of the team have caused the Patriots to have to scratch out games at the last second - or not at all.

Siliga fortifies a middle that has been giving up an average of 4.0 yards per carry and 3.6 yards to the right - numbers actually right on par with the run defense before Wilfork and Kelly were lost for the season - but he has virtually nothing to do with the whopping 6.8 yards per carry that teams have been gouging the Patriots' defense for to the left, or exactly where tackling machine Jerod Mayo roamed before losing his season to a torn pectoral muscle.

It seems that, try as they might, there is just no replacing what Mayo brought to the table, pardon the pun.  Not to mention that the defensive captain and play caller was also New England's best coverage linebacker, an area hit even harder by his loss.

But instead of lamenting on the numbers, the Patriots' coaching staff have been attempting to fill his void, with very minimal success - even playing more of a 3-4 look at times to get more coverage and less gap responsibility on the second level, but that hasn't had the desired effect either.

What makes Mayo unique to this defense is his pursuit angles and vision, as well as solid tackling technique and fluid hips in pass coverage underneath - and to replicate those attributes with just one player, or even a combination of schemes, has proven fruitless.

As has been a point of conjecture all season long, the team has attempted to replace his production with various schemes and personnel, working decently from the 4-3 and 3-4 bases, but getting gashed when the opposition forces them into a nickle look, which, because of Mayo's skill and athleticism wasn't as big an issue due to his sideline to sideline ability...

...which had allowed the defense to run with him and Dont'a Hightower as the linebackers in the 4-2-5, but which is exposed without him - so, that said, what is the answer?  An even better question might be, is there an answer?

Going back into the offseason, coach Bill Belichick brought free agent Adrian Wilson into the fold for just such a possibility.  Wilson had the bulk and size of a linebacker and the underneath coverage ability of a strong safety, but he ended up on the team's season-ending injured reserve, and there's just no one else on the team that sports that combination of size, speed and instinct.

So the Patriots are forced into a rotation at weakside linebacker that features Hightower, reserve Dane Fletcher and rookie Jamie Collins - but Hightower and Fletcher are thumpers who are better on the inside in limited space while Collins belongs on the strong side where his length and overall size matches favorably with tight ends - in other words, they are all being asked to play out of their natural position.

Mayo was often assigned to the running back, who would usually be quicker than a tight end coming out into the flat and coming off left tackle in the running game, working in conjunction with the defensive end to force a running play inside where someone like Siliga, middle linebacker Brandon Spikes and the rest of the bigger bodies can clog the rushing lanes.

Perhaps the answer lies in the rotation in the nickle, where a bigger bodied safety such as Duron Harmon or even second year special teamer Tavon Wilson could act as a Big Nickle safety and be able to set the edge, and the kid nicknamed "War Hammer", Nate Ebner, has already filled in admirably as the "Giant Back" in the dime, making him the fastest of the run defenders on the field at 4.48.

But an even better possibility may be in activating developmental rookie linebacker Steve Beauharnais to the game-day roster instead of allowing him to flounder in the system.

A healthy scratch for nearly the entire season, the 6' 1", 240 pound Beauharnais isn't the fastest guy on the planet, and he stands a bit short for the position, but the Rutgers product has the athleticism to set the edge in the running game and fills the hole with violent intent - projected as more of a strong side entity, his determined edge play and ability to stick with running backs in the pattern may be worth taking a chance on...

...but he is lost in the numbers game with injuries at other positions, so like it or not, what the Patriots already have on the active roster is what we're likely to see from here on out.

Overall, the Patriots are asking many different players to plug the hole that Mayo left behind, and it's not working as it should despite heroic effort, particularly on the part of Hightower - so a new approach should be in the offing, and the Big Nickle - be it with a safety or with Beauharnais - is worth a look...

...because with teams running all over the weak side at a clip of nearly seven yards per carry, an adjustment has to be made to the scheme or the run defense will be exploited right out of the tournament, where stopping the run is paramount.

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