Friday, July 25, 2014

Patriots' Camp Preview - Talented Front Seven Running On Star Power, Health

Editor's note: The following originally appeared on

Dont'a Hightower's draft profiles all said the same thing.

"No better run-stopping linebacker."  "A larger and more athletic Brandon Spikes."  "Pro-ready middle linebacker." - these audits were universal, as were the one that told us that he didn't do well in man coverage, nor was he a true sideline-to-sideline type linebacker.

His versatility was intriguing, and Patriot Nation fell in love with the prospect of watching him flatten running backs and blind-siding quarterbacks, losing sight of the fact that there was no place to put the kid - except at strong side linebacker where his bulk and ability to take on and shed blockers to get to the running back was on display... was his inability to consistently stick with tight ends in man coverage, which became more and more prominent with every injury the Patriots' front seven suffered - eventually leaving him exposed on the second level with no visible means of support as middle linebacker Brandon Spikes was a one-dimensional human missile against the run and with only career reserve Dane Fletcher and a pair of rookies as a supporting cast.

Bill Belichick isn't blind, and he could see the same things that we could, but he just didn't have another option - that is, until one of those rookies, second-round pick Jamie Collins stepped up in a big way.  Collins is lighter than the monstrously sized Hightower and far more agile, displaying his sideline-to-sideline athleticism and man coverage wares late last season after being meticulously brought along by the coaching staff.

In retrospect, Collins' selection was most likely tied to the fact that Belichick did not plan on re-signing the highly volatile Spikes, his plan to slide Hightower to the middle put into place when the no-nonsense coach tired of Spikes' act and essentially fired him by ending his season by placing him on the injured reserved list with a chronic knee injury.

But, alas, the defense was too injured to be considered a championship unit, and despite their valiant effort against a clearly more intact opponent, their quest for a fourth Lombardi Trophy ending on a freakishly warm afternoon in Denver in the AFC Championship Game.

This crippled unit that had been missing both starting tackles and weakside linebacker Jerod Mayo most of the season, actually played well enough in that title game to win the contest - holding the Broncos prolific juggernaut of an offense to two touchdowns, but the Patriots' offense was even more injured and couldn't match Denver's weaponry.

That is important to remember going forward, as Mayo, nose tackle Vince Wilfork and three-tech tackle Tommy Kelly are back from injury and ready to resume their roles with a supporting cast that is both battle-hardened and vastly improved - both by addition and omission.

Gone are Spikes, Fletcher and fragile shutdown corner Aqib Talib - the latter replaced by the best cornerback in the game, Darrelle Revis, while Hightower is set to start the season in the middle of the Patriots' front seven, where he belongs.

Collins will start at strong side linebacker with Mayo resuming his role as team captain on the weakside, fully recovered from surgery to repair a completely torn pectoral muscle - the trio forming what promises to be one of the best linebacking corps in the National Football League, a significant departure from the unit held together by duct tape and wishful thinking for most of last season.

But even as ruptured as that second level was in 2013, their deficiencies were magnified by the losses of Wilfork and Kelly on the interior of the Patriots' defensive line, as teams started attacking the middle of the Patriots' defense with gusto...


Around this time last season, I proposed to the followers of this blog to ponder a scenario where nose tackle Vince Wilfork wasn't around any longer.

My bad.

Now, I don't believe in Jinxes, nor fate, nor luck - but to write that and then for Wilfork to crumple like a snow cone when his Achilles Tendon finally gave out on him in Week 4 against the Atlanta Falcons was just downright freaky - so I won't be doing that again.

What I do believe in is the defensive genius of Bill Belichick, and the way he held his defense together last season once Wilfork was lost for the year - Kelly and Mayo as well - only reinforced that belief, as only Belichick could take an undersized rookie free agent from Maryland and a thrice-cut rush tackle from Bowling Green and turn them into professional emergency interior linemen.

Joe Vellano filled in at nose for Wilfork best he could, bless his heart, but Patriots' opponents ran the ball right at him for over seven yards per carry as the Patriots as a unit surrendered a bloated 160 yards per game - the final straw a ghastly 280 yard gashing at the hands of the Denver Broncos.

This certainly wasn't all Vellano's fault - not even close - as Kelly and Mayo, two forces against the rush in their own right, dropped like proverbial flies in consecutive weeks following Wilfork's incident, leaving the entire run defense exposed with rookies pulled off the scrap heap playing vital roles in the front seven.

But Wilfork's absence was the most debilitating to the New England defense - and in truth, he was gimpy from the get-go in 2013, possibly dealing with a partial tear with the tendon before it finally gave out, but giving full effort in leading the team to decent yield of 105 yards per game to start the year...

...but then falling to dead last in the league when Wilfork went down before Belichick was able to do something about it.

And he tried immediately, sending a late-round 2014 pick to the Philadelphia Eagles for disgruntled nose tackle Issac Sopoaga who went straight to the active roster, then a week later signing out-of-work free agent Sealver Siliga to his practice squad.

But Sopoaga faded into nothingness almost as soon as he tried on his jersey and proved to be no upgarde over Vellano at all.

Belichick's hand was forced, not just by Sopoaga's disappearing act nor even the preposterous 280 yards given up to the Broncos - a game that Denver lost anyway - but by Broncos' coach John Fox, who attempted to sign the journeyman Siliga off of New England's practice squad just hours after the game as an injury replacement for his own depleted corps.

But instead of allowing Siliga to be swept away, Belichick activated the 6' 2", 325 pound wide body from Utah and plugged him into the starting lineup.

What did Belichick have to lose?  Vellano was just too small, and he had just traded away draft capital to Philadelphia on a failed experiment with Sopoaga, so he loaded up the line with Siliga and hoped for the best.

What he got in return was new life for his run defense.

Siliga paid immediate dividends as the yards per game average dropped by 40 yards and the yards per carry between the tackles dropped to a far more respectable 3.8 - and the effect on the rest of the defense was compelling - Siliga was taking on the double teams that Vellano was just too small to handle, freeing up three-technique Chris Jones to rush the quarterback and keeping the extra lineman out of linebacker Hightower's face.

That's what the nose tackle position means to this defense.  It is the anchor, the cornerstone - whatever metaphor you wish to describe it with is cool, as long as it means that it's vital to the success of the defense, because if 2013's Season of Pain taught us anything, it's that you can never have enough trustworthy help...

...which is why Siliga is back in a rotational grind with Wilfork at the nose, and also why Belichick invested first-round draft capital on a freakishly explosive rush tackle out of Florida to team with Jones and Kelly to form what should be one of the better 4-3 interior tandems in the league.

Dominique Easley could very easily have been a top three selection in the 2014 draft, as many draft experts and scouts placed him on a level comperable to South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney and Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald - ACL tears in both knees during his career at Florida derailed those chances, but it is compelling to note that Easley was still in high demand by several teams despite his injury history...

...something that Belichick acknowledged after the draft when queried about the selection after the first round was completed, as many media outlets suggested that if Belichick didn't take him, the World Champions Seahawks certainly would have.

Reports coming out of Gillette Stadium prior to camp also suggest that the Patriots' are willing to take the "Collins approach" with Easley, bringing him along slowly and increasing his workload incrementally as he makes strides both in his continued recovery from the latest ACL tear and with acclimating himself to the defensive structure - because with Kelly and Chris Jones a capable rotation, the Patriots can afford to take their time with Easley.

That is a luxury that many teams can not afford - but as long as they are healthy, no team in the NFL can boast the top young talent that the Patriots employ in their front seven, as even without Easley in the starting rotation, New England boasts five top draft picks from recent years, with defensive end Chandler Jones joining Wilfork, Mayo and Hightower as first rounders and Collins as the Patriots' first selection in the 2013 draft, albeit in the second round.

Inserting Easley would make that six of seven, the only fly in that oinment being strong side end Rob Ninkovich, a former 5th round selection by the New Orleans Saints as a long-snapper, who quietly puts together solid effort game after game and is has been a fixture on the left side for the past five years.

All of this said, the issues with the front seven continue to be a question of discernable depth on the ends and on the second level.

Michael Buchanan enters his sophomore season in New England fully healthy and looks to back up Chandler Jones on the right side.  Buchanan should improve this year having a full offseason to bulk up as last year he came in 30 pounds lighter than his normal playing weight thanks to suffering a broken jaw in his senior season at Illinois, forcing him to subsist through a drinking straw for six weeks...

...while the team signed veteran rush end Will Smith from the Saints to provide depth behind Ninkovich.  The Saints waived Smith early in the offseason fearing that he would not be the same player after tearing his ACL in their 2013 camp - and while Smith had very few interested parties on the open market, Belichick is a softy for tenured veterans and he will be given his chance in camp.

If he can't perform, all hope is not lost, mostly due to the durability of Ninkovich, and also because of the signing of speedy former Panthers and Bears linebacker James Anderson.

Anderson is purely a nickle linebacker who excels at coverage underneath and will spell Hightower in passing situations, enabling Hightower to jump in on the pass rush as either an end or as five technique tackle.  This is the best case scenario for New England as the multi-tool Alabama product proved over his college career to be a pass rushing demon with a combination of incredible size - 6' 3", 270 pounds - and elite quickness into the gap.

So, combined with a much improved secondary and a full recovery from last year's Season of Pain, the New England Patriots enter training camp with high expectations, tempered by the knowledge of how impactful injuries can be - yet full of hope and the confidence that comes with falling just short of their goal last season despite suffering a series of injuries that would have devastated any other team...

...because no other team has an on-the-fly tactician and elite personnelman quite as able as head coach Bill Belichick.

This is Part seven of what will eventually be a nine part series previewing the New England Patriots' upcoming training camp, with part eight focusing on the special teams and part nine covering the intangibles.

Next up, only one spot being up for grabs, the specialists are pretty well set... 

In case you missed them, be sure to go back and read the first five pieces:

Part 1: Kraft's Business Sense, Belichick's Comittment Keys to Patriots' Way 
Part 2: Offensive Philosophy Grounded in History 
Part 3: Running Back Competition Wide Open
Part 4: Nasty changes coming along offensive line
Part 5: X,Y or Z? Labels mean little to Patriots' enigmatic pass catchers
Part 6: Fantasy Island, a "no fly zone" where three-and-out are a way of life

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