Isaac Sopoaga Could Take Snaps From Rookies, Adding Flexibility to Defense and Other Patriots Thoughts

Isaac-SopoagaFOXBORO, Mass. — After Vince Wilfork went down for the season with a torn Achilles, the question immediately became: “How do the Patriots replace him?”

New England did not panic and chose instead to fill from within, increasing Joe Vellano and Chris Jones‘ snaps. The team signed Andre Neblett, who only appeared in one game with the team and brought Marcus Forston off the practice squad.

The Patriots waited to find Wilfork’s season-long replacement. They dealt with the Eagles at the trade deadline for nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga. Sopoaga will likely only play in the base defense, when the opposing offense is most likely to run the ball. He’s a space-eater in the middle of a defense, spending most of his career playing nose tackle in a 3-4 and the one-technique defensive tackle spot in a 4-3.

That gives the Patriots some flexibility with what they’ll choose to run with Sopoaga in town now. The biggest question is: Who does Sopoaga replace in the Patriots’ base defense? We’ll try to figure that out in this week’s No-Huddle Offense.

1. Sopoaga replaces Joe Vellano or Chris Jones: The most predictable swap would be to insert Sopoaga and take out one of the rookie defensive tackles. Both players have done well as three-technique defensive tackles, where their duty is to shed blockers rather than stand up to double teams. They have struggled, however, when it comes to those nose tackle duties. Once Tommy Kelly comes back, all four players would likely rotate in the two spots.

Here’s how a 3-4 would look with Sopoaga in for one of the rookies:

Tommy Kelly/Vellano/Chris Jones – Sopoaga – Chandler Jones

Rob Ninkovich – Brandon Spikes – Dont’a Hightower – Jamie Collins

Here’s how a 4-3 would look with Sopoaga in for one of the rookies:

Ninkovich – Sopoaga – Kelly/Vellano/Chris Jones – Chandler Jones

Collins – Spikes – Hightower

The pro to this alignment is that it immediately increases the Patriots’ ability against the run by inserting Sopoaga into the nose. It keeps some speed on the field with Collins and it allows Ninkovich to still focus on rushing the passer more than dropping back in coverage. This is probably the stronger alignment for pass coverage.

The cons are that Collins has struggled as a 3-4 outside linebacker and he doesn’t have much experience as a stand-up strong-side linebacker. Chandler Jones has also struggled as a 3-4 five-techinque defensive end. He had a tough time against Bryant McKinnie on Sunday. Vellano and Chris Jones have played better than Collins through eight games this season, regardless of position.

2. Sopoaga replaces Collins: That leads us to the next possibility. Sopoaga could, in a roundabout way, replace Collins in the lineup. Collins struggled to get off blocks on Sunday. He still looks a little uncomfortable in pass coverage and doesn’t have much experience against the run. Once Kelly comes back, he would rotate with Sopoaga and the rookies for the three interior positions.

Here’s how a 3-4 would look with Sopoaga in for Collins:

Chris Jones – Sopoaga – Kelly/Vellano

Ninkovich – Spikes – Hightower – Jones

Here’s how a 4-3 would look with Sopoaga in for one of the rookies:

Chris Jones – Sopoaga – Kelly/Vellano- Chandler Jones

Ninkovich – Spikes – Hightower

The pros in this situation are that Chandler Jones gets to rush the quarterback from a more familiar position. He can use his speed, rather than power to get after the passer. This may also be an instance of using the best 11 men on the defense, since Vellano and Chris Jones have played better than Collins. This is the best alignment against the run with so many big bodies up front, including Ninkovich.

The cons are that this forces Ninkovich to play much more of a coverage role when the opposing team passes against the base defense. Ninkovich was the team’s starting strong-side linebacker in 2011, but he’s really come into his own since moving down to defensive end. This certainly weakens the base cover defense.

3. Sopoaga and Dane Fletcher get inserted into base defense: This could be the most logical thing to do with the starting base defense. Since Collins has struggled a bit, it may be best to pick occasional spots with the rookie linebacker. The Patriots used Fletcher as the dime linebacker on Sunday, so Bill Belichick must have faith in him against the run and in coverage. Once Kelly comes back, he, Sopoaga and the rookies would rotate in the two interior spots.

Here’s how a 3-4 would look with Sopoaga and Fletcher:

Kelly/Vellano/Chris Jones – Sopoaga – Chandler Jones

Ninkovich – Spikes – Hightower – Fletcher

Here’s how a 4-3 would look with Sopoaga and Fletcher:

Ninkovich – Sopoaga – Kelly/Vellano/Chris Jones – Chandler Jones

Fletcher – Spikes – Hightower

The most likely outcome of Sopoaga’s increase in snaps is that everyone’s reps get decreased a little bit. Vellano and Chris Jones will benefit from having more of a rotation at the inside spot and the linebackers will benefit from not getting taken out on the second level by an offensive lineman.

4. Armond Armstead and Mark Harrison not practicing yet: Both rookies have until Week 11 to start practicing. If they aren’t on the practice field by then, their season is over. Once either player starts practicing, they have three weeks to be activated, or else their season will be over.

Armstead was spotted walking through the locker room on Wednesday. He’s been around a lot and appears healthy, whereas the chair in Harrison’s locker hasn’t moved for weeks now, indicating he may not be around the facility.

Harrison broke his foot at the combine. That was eight months ago. Unless his bones recover slower than Rob Gronkowski‘s infected forearm, he should be healthy at this point.

Armstead walks with no limp when he’s around and was even seen doing some agility drills on the far side of the practice field away from the rest of the players in sweats.

5. Shane Vereen starts practicing: Vereen was eligible to start practicing last week. He didn’t show up on the practice field until Wednesday, though. He walked through the locker room today, as well. He’s not eligible to return until Week 11, though.

Vereen has no cast on his wrist and appears to have full motion and flexibility with it. He’ll be a spark to the offense when he returns.

6. Tommy Kelly, Leon Washington and Aqib Talib practicing: The Patriots will need to decide whether they want to let Kelly and Talib play against the Steelers or hold them out one more game and let them get back into the swing of things against the Panthers after the bye. The latter may make more sense, especially since the Patriots have been playing at a relatively high level without them.

New England would look extremely dangerous in Carolina on Week 11 if they got Vereen, Kelly and Talib back.

7. Kenbrell Thompkins’ snaps decrease against Miami: After playing 73 snaps against the Jets, tied for the team’s lead at receiver, Thompkins played just 14 snaps against the Dolphins. Aaron Dobson wound up playing the most snaps at receiver.

I think it has more to do with Dobson than Thompkins to see that switch. Dobson has really come on as of late and seems to be having no trouble getting open. They’ve both had issues with drops, but Dobson is the player with the higher upside.

8. Marcus Cannon is forced to step up: Cannon hasn’t had a ton of responsibility in his three-year career, but now that Sebastian Vollmer is out for the season, Cannon is forced to step up. He’s now the Patriots’ starting right guard. There was some question whether Vollmer was going to come back this season. If he hadn’t, Cannon would have had to step up.

If Cannon can’t play at a high level, the Patriots still have Will Svitek as a backup.

9. Andre Carter looks rusty in first snaps: Carter certainly looks in game shape, but it was no surprise the veteran defensive end had some trouble getting off blocks playing for the first time since last December. His fit is an interesting one with Sopoaga in town. If the Patriots think he’s up for it, Carter could play defensive end opposite Chandler Jones, moving Ninkovich back to linebacker.

10. Chris Jones excelling with third team: It’s a bit of a miracle that Chris Jones is playing so well. He’s on his third team since being drafted in the sixth round by the Texans. Now he’s leading all rookie defensive linemen with 4 1/2 sacks. And he’s done it in just five games. Given Houston and Tampa Bay’s struggles, they would probably like to get Jones back.

11. Ryan Allen has a former rival in the NFL: Back in 2008, Ryan Allen and John Hekker walked on to the Oregon State football team as punters. Hekker won the job, so Allen decided to transfer to Louisiana Tech after his freshman year. Allen went on to win two Ray Guy Awards and the Patriots’ starting job. Hekker? He’s doing OK too. He’s the Rams’ punter.

Have a question for Doug Kyed? Send it to him via Twitter at @DougKyedNESN or send it here.

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