Saturday, June 13, 2015

Musket Reloaded - Part 5: Patriots Defensive Line Improved Despite Losing Wilfork

Siliga will be counted on to hold the nose in the Patriots run defense
What do Sealver Siliga and Alan Branch have in common?

Not a hell of a lot, other than they both were briefly members of the Seattle Seahawks, both are extraordinarily large human beings and both took immense pleasure in knocking off those aforementioned Seahawks in last February's Super Bowl - oh yes, and also, they represent the veteran interior of the New England Patriots' defensive line.

How each ended up on the Patriots' roster is a lesson on why one teams' trash is another teams' treasure - in fact, nearly the entire interior of the Patriots' defensive line is littered with folks that were shunned by other teams before finding a home in Foxborough...

...Rob Ninkovich, Chris Jones and Antonio Johnson also fitting the profile, though their individual journey to the Bay State are not as compelling as those of Siliga and Branch.
Branch played in eight regular season games...

Branch was originally drafted in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals, spending four seasons as a solid, yet anonymous rotational defensive tackle, then two more in Seattle as a rotational free agent pick up before heading off to Buffalo where he became recognized as a top 10 run-stuffing 3-4 defensive end.

Siliga's path to the world champions was less celebrated, having not been drafted but ending up for a brief stay with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent before spending two years on the Denver Broncos' practice squad, then traded to Seattle for offensive lineman John Moffit.  The University of Utah product then bounced back and forth between the Seahawks' practice squad and football limbo early in the 2013 season before his agent, who is close to many in the Patriots' organization, sought a workout for his client.

Siliga was signed to the Patriots' practice squad soon after, but when the Broncos lost defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson to a dislocated hip during the Patriots' epic come-from-behind victory over Denver, word got to head ball coach Bill Belichick that the Broncos wanted Siliga back, and were set to sign him off of New England's practice squad to their own active roster.

Belichick, having lost nose tackle Vince Wilfork and rush tackle Tommy Kelly to season-ending injury earlier in the season and getting zero impact from trade pick up Issac Sopoaga and undersized nose Joe Vellano, trumped the broncos by promoting Siliga to the Patriots' active roster - and the space eater solidified the interior of the Patriots' rush defense.
While Siliga made an impact in just seven

Much has changed since then, as New England has replenished their depth chart through the draft, selecting explosive rush tackle Dominique Easley last season and nose tackle Malcom Brown this past April, fully intending for the two youngsters to eventually take over the majority of snaps.

And why not?  The undersized Easley has elite explosion off the line and could become one of the premier interior pass rushers in the league if his knees hold up, and Brown is a two-gap space eater with a powerful lower body who has shown the ability to collapse a pocket up the middle and occupy multiple blockers.

What the Patriots want from their tackles is the ability to re-establish the line of scrimmage two yards deep in the opponent's backfield and filter the running game to the edges where, in theory, the defensive ends and outside linebackers can string out the play to the sidelines or redirect the back off-tackle, where the box safeties and big linebackers are waiting for them...

...and that worked like a charm, but only after Siliga and Branch found their way onto the field in the middle of last season.

Branch joined the Patriots on the field against Denver in week nine, while Siliga saw his first action of the season at Indianapolis after coming off the IR with a designation to return, and the results are startling.

In the first half of the season before the two behemoths saw the field, the Patriots' run defense was surrendering an abysmal 4.53 yards per carry to opposing running backs, including an alarming 5.32 right up the gut - which is merely a side effect of a combination of Wilfork trying to hold the nose by himself with no pure rotational nose tackle to spell him, and with Easley a shell of his enormous potential as he recovered from offseason ACL surgery.
Moore, Ninkovich and Jones

But once Siliga and Branch were available to be rotated into the lineup, the average yards per carry given up by the Patriots on the ground dropped by nearly a full yard per carry to 3.63, most of that division coming up the middle, where New England held opposing runners to a stupid good 2.8 yards per carry, the best in the league during that time frame.

So with the Patriots releasing Wilfork from his contract in March, is it any wonder that they turned around and spent their first round draft capital on Brown, or that they quickly re-signed Branch to a two-year, $6 million contract?

The combination of Siliga and Brown at the nose and Branch, Easley and Chris Jones at the three-tech have the potential to be just as effective in 2015 as the positions were in their championship season - perhaps even better, and they are going to have to be, gauging from the unit's performance in the playoffs, where they were merely average against two of the league elite ground games in Baltimore and Seattle...

...particularly on the edges where, when they couldn't find success up the middle, those teams found plenty of room, going for five yards a pop to the left, and a pornographic 6.5 yards per carry to the right.

That explains Belichick's moves in free agency, where he plucked defensive end Jabaal Sheard away from Cleveland and spent a significant portion of his draft capital on edge players Geneo Grissom out of Oklahoma and Trey Flowers from Arkansas to back up incumbent starters in Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich.

So pleased was Belichick with his offseason acquisitions that he felt he was able to slice some of the fat from his veteran roster, cutting Michael Buchanan outright and swapping positions for enigmatic rush end Jake Bequette, who will don number 85 and try to make the team as a tight end - the only other holdover from last season being 6th rounder Zach Moore, a small school prospect who absolutely dominated at Division II Concordia College.
Sheard is relentless in pursuit

Jones will start on the weak side, but could be pushed for early down duties by either Moore or rookie Flowers, particularly Flowers, as power is the name of his game and could be the containment end that the Patriots have been seeking seemingly forever. Traditionally undersized for an end, Flowers makes up for his 6' 2", 265 pound frame with long arms, an innate ability to stack and shed and hold his ground at the point of attack...

...while Moore is nearly a clone of Jones in stature, which makes his development from his rookie season a key point to watch with Jones in his contract year and likely to command eight digits on the open market, which the Patriots would be hard-pressed to be able to afford.

Flowers could also rotate in on the strong side, where Sheard may displace Ninkovich as the early-down as, like Flowers, his game is all about power and leverage.  Like-sized as linebacker Donta' Hightower, Sheard also possesses the same containment ability as Hightower showed in college and gives right tackles and tight ends a fight on every snap.

But what makes Sheard special is that he seems to have a sixth sense, knowing when to disengage from his blocker to sniff out screens and running plays to the outside, and not much gets past him as he is strong enough to shed and release, blowing up those types of plays before they ever really get started - and with his ability to bull rush tackles by getting under their pads consistently, Ninkovich could easily move to more of an outside linebacker role, preserving his 30-plus year old legs.

The Sheard - Ninkovich debate is a problem that a lot of teams wish they had, as Ninkovich is a proven all-around defender who leads the Patriots in sacks for the past three seasons and made a momentum-changing sack of Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson in the Super Bowl that propelled the Patriots' fourth quarter comeback.  He is always around the ball and is as scrappy as they come, but is not an elite edge defender, while Sheard has the makings of a Pro Bowl selection on the strong side.

Regardless of how the strong side shapes up, the Patriots have improved their defensive line with their offseason acquisitions despite losing Wilfork - because it's all about rotation with Belichick's defenses.

With their elite set of starting linebackers backing them up, the Patriots can continue last season's trend of switching back and forth between three and four man lines, with Siliga and brown rotating in the middle mixed with their kennel of hybrids that can play either the three or the five technique with equal success - going heavy with all tackles if need be, or fast and violent on the pass rush with a combination of quick twitch interior defenders like Easley teaming with the likes of Jones, Sheard and Ninkovich to put the oppositions pass protectors back on their heels...

...and when one considers the talent the Patriots possess at linebacker and the seemingly endless supply of box safety types that add another layer to both the pass rush and run defense, the Patriots' front seven could be one of the best in the league.

And that all starts up front.

This is the fifth installment in a multi-part series focused around the philosophies of the offense and defense as it pertains to the building process.  Part six will focus on the linebacking corps, and how the Patriots have shifted philosophies to make up one of the most imposing front sevens in the league...

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