Friday, January 3, 2014

New England Patriots on Paper: Siliga anchoring a playoff ready run defense

Sealver Siliga has added a dimension that has allowed his teammates to display their own wares. (David Silverman/NEP)
"The Patriots are very young on the defensive side, and seemingly thin in depth on the interior of the defensive line and at safety, but the starters are solid and the depth carries with it a ton of potential, and as long as injuries don’t become an issue, this defense should be much improved over the unit that made it to the AFC title game last February." - Foxborough Free Press, September 5, 2013

Little did anyone know, nor could anyone imagine the unmitigated nightmare of injuries the New England Patriots' defense has had to endure this season.

In the space of three consecutive games, the Patriots lost three veteran starters for the entire year, including both starting defensive tackles.  Run-plugging man-mountain Vince Wilfork, who appeared hobbled to begin the season, finally had his Achilles tendon give out in Week 4 at Atlanta, then newly signed pass rushing tackle Tommy Kelly's knee-guts shredded the following week in Cincinnati.

And as if that wasn't bad enough, the defense lost it's heart and soul and captain, linebacker Jerod Mayo, to a torn Pectoral muscle the week after that in New England's last-second victory over the New Orleans' Saints.

Any other team in the league would have folded like a cheap tent under the weight of such debilitating injuries to their very core, yet the Patriots somehow managed to persevere and, indeed, to flourish - which is absolutely insane, particularly given that the two stalwarts on the interior of the defensive line were replaced by rookies, one an undrafted free agent and the other a late round castoff that was cut by two different teams before finding a home in Foxborough.

Along the way, coach Bill Belichick brought in a couple of low profile veterans to bring some bulk and experience to the unit, but it wasn't until thrice-rejected tackle Sealver Siliga found his way to the active roster that New England was able to shore up a leaky run defense.

Siliga declared himself eligible for the 2010 NFL Draft after his junior season at the University of Utah, much to the confusion and surprise of many draft experts who considered him a longshot to be selected and felt that he was banking on the success of some of his predecessors from the Utes' program to pave his way to the NFL.

The draft reviews were universal in their assessment that Siliga was nothing more than a career backup with questionable strength and no speed - zero pass rushing skill and an inability to disengage from double teams and penetrate the pocket among the downside of his projected professional skill set.

To be fair, these same draftniks noted his ability to shed from the nose to make plays on backs coming through either of his gap responsibilities in the running game and gives full effort, and also mentioned that he was voted a team captain in his junior season.

And, who knows?  The experts were correct in that Siliga would go undrafted and had done absolutely nothing but toil in anonymity on three different teams' practice squads, assuming the role of career backup - until the Patriots picked him up off the scrap heap in late October once the Seattle Seahawks cut him from their practice squad...

...but it wasn't as if their interest in the 23-year-old was based on just plugging a hold on the roster, as they had shown some interest in Siliga in the past but were not willing to make the three-game roster commitment that is required of a team that plucks a player off another team's practice squad - that is until Wilfork and Kelly went down in successive weeks.

Similar to what New England had done with fringe players in the past, Siliga had been cut from the Seattle Seahawks' practice squad for a third time, and this time, the need calibrated with the waiver - the Patriots picked him up just three days after yielding 177 rushing yards to the New York Jets in a 30-27 overtime loss and just days before the team made somewhat of a splash, trading a sixth round draft pick to Philadelphia Eagles for veteran tackle Issac Sopoaga.

Obviously, New England had no idea that the player that was destined to be a career backup would progress in their system as quickly and as completely as he did, or they may not have even bothered with parting with a late-round draft pick and ramping up their salary cap numbers to acquire Sopoaga...

...but the ability to plug the 10th year veteran tackle into the lineup immediately upon acquisition was too promising to pass up - after all, Belichick was running with Chris Jones - a 6th round pick by Houston that the Texans released as part of their final cuts and was picked up and released by the Buccaneers - and undrafted free agent Joe Vellano, with Siliga being in town and on the practice squad for a grand total of four days.

But after seeing his try-hard tackles Jones and Vellano try to hold the fort for three games and watching Sopoaga disappear into thin air, Siliga was promoted from the practice squad, stepping in and providing a presence in the middle that has had a trickle-down effect on the entire defense.

Suddenly, the weak side of the Patriots' front seven - where Mayo would usually prowl - is so stout that opponents have been reduced to things like reverses and naked bootlegs to gain any significant yardage at all, dropping from a whopping 6.8 yards per rush to a more reasonable 5.3, but it doesn't end there.

Take away a 34 yard reverse by Cleveland's Josh Gordon, a 13 yard reverse by Miami's Mike Wallace and a 14 yard garbage time bootleg by Baltimore's Tyrod Taylor and the average drops to a minuscule 3.2 yards per carry - and when combined with the already stout middle and strong side run support, the Patriots are yielding just 3.6 yards per carry heading into the playoffs.

Siliga is proving the draftniks wrong and making the fans of the San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks wonder how he got away - but how is the third year reserve making such a difference with the Patriots?

All one has to do is look at his draft profile, at the part that tells of his ability to make plays on either of his nose gap responsibilities to find the answer to that - similar to the skill set that Wilfork brought to the line, but not nearly as polished, Siliga holding the point of attack enables the linebackers to set the edge where they were forced to fill in the middle before the Utah product set up house.

And as for having no pass rush skill at all, how does three sacks in four games sound?  One of them beating a double team - which he can't do, according to the profile - and chasing the quarterback down from behind, which he can't do, either.

So New England enters the playoffs in a position that no other team could have accomplished with a group of backups on defense that no one else wanted, with an identity that speaks to old school fundamental football - the ability to run the football on offense and, now, the ability to stop the run on defense.

And with every playoff game that the Patriots play - including the Super Bowl - being in potentially very cold weather and potentially sloppy conditions, there isn't another team in the tournament that is as well prepared for a deep run as are the boys from Foxborough.

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