The Patriots once again made waves at the trade deadline this year. This time, they added the big body up front that they so desperately needed.
Since Vince Wilfork hit injured reserve with an Achilles tear in Week 4, the Patriots’ run defense has been porous at best and abysmal at worst. One year after finishing eighth in the NFL in run defense, the Patriots now rank second to last against the run in 2013. A big reason behind that drastic fall is the absence of Wilfork in the middle, which is also what likely caused them to make a move on Tuesday.
The Patriots acquired defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga in a deal with the Eagles just minutes before the 4 p.m. deadline, giving them the big-bodied nose tackle they needed. And almost just as important, they gave up next to nothing to get him, getting a sixth-round pick back along with the big Samoan in exchange for a fifth-rounder — not to mention the two picks likely won’t be more than 20 picks apart.
Sopoaga, 6-foot-2 and 330 pounds, is a nine-year NFL veteran, spending his first eight seasons with the 49ers before signing with the Eagles this offseason. The 32-year-old doesn’t have Wilfork’s All-Pro credentials nor is he a dependable three-down lineman, but he does offer upside against the run, which will be important in the second half.
In the Patriots’ four games with Wilfork on the field this season, they allowed just 420 rushing yards (105 per game). But, in the four games since his injury, they’ve given up 626 yards on the ground, which amounts to a whopping 156.5 per game. It’s important to note Tommy Kelly has also missed the last few weeks with an injury, but he has far more of an impact in the pass rush than against the run.
With Sopoaga now on board, rookie Chris Jones, who has 4 1/2 sacks through five games this season, can go back to focusing on the pressuring the quarterback, and the Patriots won’t have to rely as heavily on undrafted rookie Joe Vellano. Both rookies have performed well in expanded roles over the last few weeks, but the Patriots will be much better off using them in more specified functions within the defense.
Sopoaga isn’t exactly the perfect run stopper, and he shouldn’t be compared to Wilfork since that’s unfair for just about everyone, but he can help clog up holes and make some big plays. His massive frame should command more than once blocker at times, giving Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower more freedom to make plays near the line, and it should allow either Chandler Jones or Rob Ninkovich to stand up at outside linebacker in some versions of the 3-4. His experience with the 49ers should help him adapt to the Patriots’ system quickly, and he should help free Kelly up to focus more on the pass rush as well.
Between Sopoaga, Kelly, Jones and Ninkovich in the base defense and a rotation of Vellano, Chris Jones, Andre Carter, Marcus Forston and Michael Buchanan filling in behind them, the Patriots are much better off up front than they were even two weeks ago. This move might not fix things right away, or permanently for that matter, but it’s at least a major step in the right direction.
Photo via Facebook/Adam Niner King Carrillo