FOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots answered most of the pressing questions surrounding the organization in training camp. But the summer left more more questions than answers at defensive tackle.
Entering training camp, Armond Armstead was expected to be the third defensive tackle on the team. He was supposed to push Tommy Kelly for a starting role, or in the very least, he would be the team’s interior pass rusher in nickel and dime packages. Armstead’s NFL journey got sidetracked, though.
The USC product was placed on the non-football illness list prior to training camp. Then, as the Patriots’ yearly practice at Gillette Stadium was wrapping up, the team sent a cryptic email, saying Armstead had undergone surgery to treat an infection and that he would make a full recovery.
The last time Armstead was spotted, he was in the team’s locker room after New England’s matchup against the Buccaneers. He looked noticeably slimmed down and declined to talk to the media. Armstead started the season on reserve/NFI, meaning he won’t be able to return until Week 7 at the earliest.
Until then, the Patriots have Vince Wilfork and Kelly as the starters, with Joe Vellano and A.J. Francis as reserves. Marcus Forston is extra depth on the practice squad.
Last season, the Patriots used Kyle Love as the starter in the base defense, then brought Jermaine Cunningham, a defensive end, to play defensive tackle in sub packages (nickel and dime, usually on third down). When Cunningham was suspended, the team started Brandon Deaderick and used Love in that sub package pass-rushing role.
This summer, we saw a similar game plan. Wilfork and Kelly would be the starters and Cunningham would play third-down defensive tackle. Then Cunningham got hurt and Marcus Benard took over the role. We saw Justin Francis play the position at times, as well.
Cunningham, Benard and Francis have all been released now and the team is left with just Michael Buchanan and Jake Bequette as reserve defensive ends and Vellano and Francis as backup interior defenders. The only player left, who we saw play as an interior rusher this summer was Vellano, who had one sack, one quarterback hit and two quarterback hurries during the preseason, according to Pro Football Focus. Vellano appeared to be a decent pass rusher, but he may not be ready for such a big role yet.
If the Patriots think he’s up to it, despite being 32 years old, the best option on third down may be to keep Kelly in the defense. He seemed to have no issue getting into the backfield in his 42 preseason snaps. He racked up one sack, one quarterback hit and one pressure, according to Pro Football Focus. Kelly thinks he’s up to the added reps.
“I mean, I been doing that my whole career,” Kelly said. “I ain’t used to coming out of games in Oakland. I mean, I had to go. So, I ain’t tripping about nothing, personally. This ain’t my first rodeo.”
Kelly may be able to do it, but the Patriots will need to make sure he and Wilfork get some rest. It’s not easy for 300-pounders to play an entire game, even though Wilfork did a pretty good job of it last season. New England has to be wary to keep Wilfork and Kelly healthy, too, with just Vellano and Francis behind them.
Kelly is a much better pass rusher than Love or Deaderick were last season. So it’s definitely not out of the realm of possibilities that they could use him in that sub-package role. Kelly understands the pressures of playing that position.
“When you’re out there you got to handle your business,” Kelly said. “Because when you’re gonna be out there on sub, if you don’t make no plays you ain’t gonna be on sub too long. It really don’t matter. It’s really all about winning. When you got a chance, you gotta make plays. Me personally, it don’t matter to me. A lot of time, training camp, you try people in different spots just in case to cover the bases because football’s so physical, you don’t know who you gonna have the whole season so you might want to try everybody at somewhere just to say ‘OK, if he get hurt, I get him to slide in there in a pinch.’ Coach is good at that.”
If the Patriots decide to take the same route they did last year and in the preseason, the best bets to play the interior role are reserves Buchanan and Bequette. At 6-foot-6, 255 pounds, Buchanan doesn’t have the same low center of gravity that Cunningham or Benard had, but he has some experience playing inside.
“Yeah, I’ve done some of it,” Buchanan said. “In college, I did a number of different things. I feel comfortable doing anything they ask me to do.”
The issue with having a player like Buchanan or Bequette play that role is the same issue New England saw during the preseason with Benard in there. Teams can exploit the undersized player by running at them. But, if the opposition is facing third-and-long, and running the ball isn’t really an option, we could see Buchanan or Bequette play in the middle.
The final possibility, though it’s doubtful, would be the Patriots moving Jones or Ninkovich into the middle and bringing Buchanan, Bequette or even Dont’a Hightower in to play the edge. That may weaken the pressure from the edge, but Jones is the closest thing the Patriots have to a player like J.J. Watt. Jones is very strong and could be a real nuisance to the opposing team in the middle. Since Jones is the team’s best edge rusher, though, it would be odd to see him slid inside.
In just three days, we’ll know the answer to who plays defensive tackle on third down. It’s one of the few questions we have yet to answer before the regular season starts and since media availability has been scaled back at practice, there’s no chance to get a glimpse of the nickel defense.
Buchanan was hesitant when asked whether the Patriots had asked him to play inside during practice. He said simply, “Whatever they ask me to do, I’m ready to do.”