Patriots’ Run Defense No Longer Weak Spot Thanks to Sealver Siliga, Switch to 4-3

Sealver Siliga, Ryan Tannehill, Rob NinkovichIt appeared the Patriots had bamboozled the Eagles when they traded a fifth-round pick for defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga and a sixth-rounder.

It turns out, New England may not have needed to pull off that deal to fix its run defense, which had struggled since defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly were lost with season-ending injuries. In a much more low-profile move, the Patriots signed defensive tackle Sealver Siliga to their practice squad on Oct. 23, six days before the Sopoaga trade. Siliga actually announced the move himself, posting a photo inside Gillette Stadium through social media.

Siliga was a free agent, available to anyone. The Seahawks had cut the third-year pro, signed him to their practice squad and cut him again. Seattle wasn’t the first team to give up on Siliga. The 49ers originally signed the Utah product when he went undrafted in 2011 and released him before Week 1 of that season. The Broncos picked him up and carried him on their roster, split between the practice squad and active roster for two seasons before they traded him to the Seahawks for reserve offensive lineman John Moffitt in Aug. 2013.

It seems impossible that a player who has bounced around the NFL for three seasons could be the cure-all to a unit that ranked 31st in the league in rushing yards per game entering Week 15. They were giving up 132.5 yards per game and 4.4 per carry. Siliga has played well, but he’s likely not the cure to the struggling unit, just the best fill in the Patriots currently have.

When Siliga was on the field against the Browns in Week 14, his first game as a starter, the Patriots allowed 39 yards on 20 carries to running backs for a clip of 1.95 yards per carry. New England allowed 64 yards on 17 carries for 3.8 yards per carry when Siliga was on the field on Sunday against the Dolphins. The Patriots allowed 4.3 yards per carry on designed runs throughout the game.

A nickel front six of defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, defensive tackles Joe Vellano and Isaac Sopoaga and linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins allowed the biggest play, a 13-yard end around to Mike Wallace.

I broke down how many yards the Patriots allowed per player, front and alignment in Week 15 in Miami. Check out the breakdown below. (Since the Wallace run was a bit of an anomaly, I’ve included the yards per carry without that play in parenthesis when applicable).

Ninkovich: 21 carries for 90 yards, 4.3 yards per carry (3.9 ypc without Wallace’s 13-yard run)
Chandler Jones: 21-90, 4.3 ypc (3.9 ypc)
Siliga: 17-64, 3.8 ypc
Chris Jones: 14-55, 3.9 ypc
Vellano: 7-35, 5 ypc (3.7 ypc)
Sopoaga: 4-26, 6.5 ypc (4.3 ypc)
Hightower: 21-90, 4.3 ypc (3.9 ypc)
Brandon Spikes: 10-31, 3.1 ypc
Collins: 15-71, 4.7 ypc (4.1 ypc)

Ninkovich, Chandler Jones and Hightower played on every designed-rushing down. The defense was most stout when Spikes was in at middle linebacker. It allowed the biggest plays when Sopoaga and Collins were in.

Nickel: 17 carries for 78 yards, 4.6 yards per carry (4.1 ypc)
Ninkovich, defensive tackle Chris Jones, Siliga, Chandler Jones, Hightower, Collins: 6-30, 5 ypc
Ninkovich, Chris Jones, Siliga, Chandler Jones, linebacker Spikes, Hightower: 4-10, 2.5 ypc
Ninkovich, Vellano, Sopoaga, Chandler Jones, Hightower, Collins: 3-20, 6.7 ypc (3.5 ypc)
Ninkovich, Siliga, Vellano, Chandler Jones, Spikes, Hightower: 1-3, 3 ypc
Ninkovich, Siliga, Vellano, Chandler Jones, Collins, Hightower: 2-9, 4.5 ypc
Ninkovich, Chris Jones, Sopoaga, Chandler Jones, Spikes, Hightower: 1-6, 6 ypc

4-3: 4 carries for 12 yards, 3 yards per carry
Ninkovich, Chris Jones, Siliga, Chandler Jones, Collins, Spikes, Hightower: 3-9, 3 ypc
Ninkovich, Siliga, Vellano, Chandler Jones, Hightower, Spikes, Collins: 1-3, 3 ypc

It makes sense that a front seven in the 4-3 “regular” defense was more stout against the run than a front six in nickel. The best alignment, though, was the nickel made up of Ninkovich, Chris Jones, Siliga, Chandler Jones, Spikes and Hightower.

Front four:
Ninkovich, Chris Jones, Siliga, Chandler Jones: 13-49, 3.8 ypc
Ninkovich, Vellano, Sopoaga, Chandler Jones: 3-20, 6.7 ypc (3.5 ypc)
Ninkovich, Siliga, Vellano, Chandler Jones: 4-15, 3.8 ypc
Ninkovich, Chris Jones, Sopoaga, Chandler Jones: 1-6, 6 ypc

The Patriots’ best front four were the starters: Ninkovich, Chris Jones, Siliga and Chandler Jones.

The Dolphins and Browns don’t have the best rushing offenses in the NFL, by any means, so these strong performances may not last forever, but New England bottomed out when they faced the Broncos in Week 12. Prior to Denver’s 280-yard performance on the ground against the Patriots, they were ranked right near Miami and Cleveland in rushing yards per game.

If there was an aspect of the Patriots’ defense that struggled against the Dolphins and Browns, it was their pass defense. There’s hope with that unit, though. Cornerbacks Aqib Talib (hip), Alfonzo Dennard (shoulder, knee) and Kyle Arrington (groin) and safety Steve Gregory (finger) are all banged up. If they can get healthy before the playoffs, this defense could be playing at its strongest level since it was at full health to start the season. Of course, they have lost two All-Pros since then.

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

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