It turns out the Patriots needed a traditional nose tackle, after all.
After Vince Wilfork went down with a season-ending Achilles injury, New England tried to get by with Joe Vellano and Chris Jones, two undersized defensive tackles known more for their ability to get after the passer than taking on double teams. Since switching back to a four-man front and inserting nose tackle Sealver Siliga into the defense, however, the run defense has been not-so sieve-like.
Belichick explained how it took so long for the Patriots to acquire Siliga (whose first name is pronounced “like the color”) during his press conference on Friday.
“He was on and off of Seattle’s roster from the practice squad. If you sign a player off the practice squad, then you have to keep him for three weeks. You can do it, but there’s a little bit of a commitment there,” Belichick said. “Then we kind of found a time when he was off the practice squad and I think they had some injuries and they were kind of rotating a few guys and they didn’t bring him back and we were able to get him back on our practice squad so we could get an opportunity to work with him. He showed up and improved and then got an opportunity to play and took advantage of that opportunity. It was kind of a sequence of things. I’d say different but similar to Kyle Arrington when he came here and went on the practice squad and then went up to the roster and that type of thing – Dan Connolly, guys like that.
“Sometimes you have an interest in them, but they’re just not available,” he added. “You just can’t get them early. You have to go through a process or you have, like I said, maybe you have injuries or you’re dealing with some kind of roster situation and you want the guy but you just can’t find a spot because you have something else going on and that type of thing. You’re just not sure enough to commit to him. If you really have the conviction, on any player obviously, you can always find room. If you feel that strongly about it, you just make room. It’s guys like Siliga and Connolly and Arrington and guys like that that you get your eye on, you kind of like, you want to work with them but sometimes you have to wait until the timing is right. I would say that was the case with Sealver.”
It turns out he was worth the wait. The 325-pounder has been a strong presence in the middle of the defense. He has not played perfectly, but his ability to eat up space has allowed linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes to roam free. Hightower’s play has especially improved since Siliga was added to the starting defense in Week 14 against the Browns.
I broke down the personnel in the front seven for each rushing play. Siliga was the only Patriots defender in for every designed run (I did not include quarterback Tyrod Taylor‘s three scrambles or Joe Flacco‘s kneel down).
Rob Ninkovich: 23 carries, 74 yards, 3.2 yards per carry, TD
Sealver Siliga: 24-83, 3.5 ypc, TD
Chris Jones: 22-70, 3.2 ypc, TD
Chandler Jones: 23-74, 3.2 ypc, TD
Joe Vellano: 4-15, 3.8 ypc, TD
Andre Carter: 3-11, 3.7 ypc, TD
Michael Buchanan: 1-9, 9 ypc
Dont’a Hightower: 22-71, 3.2 ypc, TD
Brandon Spikes: 22-60, 2.7 ypc, TD
Jamie Collins: 7-33, 4.7 ypc, TD
Steve Beauharnais: 1-9, 9 ypc
Chris White: 1-9, 9 ypc
For the second week in a row, Spikes allowed the fewest yards per carry out of any front-seven defender. Spikes and Collins had some overlap, but it was clear the Patriots were better when Spikes was in the middle of the defense, whether it was in base or nickel. Chris Jones has benefitted from having Siliga next to him. Jones is much better when he can try to defend one gap rather than two. He’s also better when he’s allowed to utilize his mobility.
Nickel: 20-67, 3.4 ypc
Ninkovich, Siliga, Jones, Jones, Hightower, Spikes: 16-46, 2.9 ypc
Ninkovich, Siliga, Jones, Jones, Spikes, Collins: 1-3, 3 ypc
Ninkovich, Siliga, Jones, Jones, Hightower, Collins: 2-14, 7 ypc
Ninkovich, Siliga, Vellano, Chandler Jones, Hightower, Spikes: 1-4, 4 ypc
4-3: 2-14, 7 ypc
Ninkovich, Siliga, Jones, Jones, Collins, Spikes, Hightower: 1-5, 5 ypc
Carter, Siliga, Vellano, Buchanan, Collins, Beauharnais, White: 1-9, 9 ypc
Goal line: 2-2, 1 ypc, TD
Ninkovich, Vellano, Siliga, Carter, Jones, Jones, Collins, Spikes, Hightower: 2-2, 1 ypc, TD
The nickel is not supposed to be so solid against the run, since there are just six players at defensive line and linebacker, but lately it has been stout. The Ravens are not great at running the ball, but they were having trouble getting anywhere against the New England defense.
The Patriots will have one final test against the Bills, who are second in the NFL in rushing the football. They average 142.5 yards per game and 4.2 per carry.
If New England can stop Buffalo running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, they can probably stop anyone. But that is a big “if.”