NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
In the waning hours of the Oct. 29 NFL trade deadline, the New England Patriots sent a 2014 fifth-round pick to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for 32-year-old defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga and a 2014 sixth-round pick.
The low-risk move freed Philadelphia from $7.5 million in cap space over the next two seasons, and it afforded New England a veteran inside man to plug into the system with Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly – fellow members of the 2004 class – lost for the rest of 2013.
Acquiring the 10-year pro made sense in terms of immediate need, but the Patriots’ interest in Sopoaga actually dated back a decade, as head coach Bill Belichick detailed in his Nov. 1 press conference:
“We talked about taking him and we were going to take him and we were just a round late,” Belichick said, when asked about Sopoaga’s availability in the 2004 draft. “He was right there; we were ready to take him,” he later added.
But instead, the San Francisco 49ers did in Round 4. And since that April selection, the 6’2”, 330-pound Hawaii product has amassed 226 total tackles, 7.5 sacks, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries over 86 starts and 133 games.
Although just eight contests into his first season with the Eagles, Sopoaga’s performance netted just 10 combined tackles in 242 defensive snaps, easing into his departure from the 3-4 front and tempering expectations in Foxborough, Mass.
How would Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia utilize the run-stuffer built to play in base defenses? How would the collective unit fare with him on the field?
Here is a closer look at the techniques, formations and results from Sopoaga’s Patriots debut versus the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
Zero-Technique Nose Tackle
Sopoaga’s Week 9 opened up on the first play from scrimmage, where he started at nose tackle in New England’s 3-4 front.
While the scheme altered, that positioning continued into a trend for the American Samoa native, as he logged all 11 of his first-half snaps from the zero-technique – head-to-head with Steelers center Fernando Velasco.
With Sopoaga manning two gaps, New England’s three-man defensive lines managed to go beyond the traditional 3-4 approach with four linebackers. Sopoaga was also in the huddle for one snap in a 3-3, one snap in a 3-5 and one snap in a 3-6 sub-package front.
For what is it worth, the Patriots defense allowed an average of 3.1 yards per play and notched an interception while Sopoaga was facilitated in these settings.
The nose is Sopoaga’s niche. And since Wilfork’s season-ending Achilles injury against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 4, it’s been a relatively vacant spot in New England’s defense, as rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones have worked in more four-man lines.
One-Technique Defensive Tackle
As the second half got underway at Gillette Stadium, the game plan changed. Sopoaga did not play a down at the zero-tech in the final two quarters. New England shifted to more four D-lineman displays, bracing for the passing game with nickel and dime. In turn, Sopoaga shifted outward.
Sopoaga played four snaps at one-technique defensive tackle – shading the center’s shoulder and forging the respective A-gap.
From the one-tech, Sopoaga was facilitated for one snap in a 3-3 look, one snap in a 4-1 look and two snaps in a 4-2 look.
In these four Sopoaga plays, New England allowed a 12 yards and a touchdown – a three-yard average per snap – Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went 2-for-4 passing.
Sopoaga is not a sub-package pressurizer. Nonetheless, from the middle gaps, he can aid in keeping opponents honest in regards to draw plays with three- or four-receiver personnel.
Three-Technique Defensive Tackle
Despite Sopoaga spelling in at the one-tech, his most prevalent post after intermission was from three-technique defensive tackle – on the outside shoulder of the offensive guard, which in this case was backup offensive tackle Guy Whimper.
Bull rushing the assigned B-gap, Sopoaga was in the mix for nine 4-1 dime snaps as well as two 4-2 nickel snaps.
Over the course of those 11 plays, New England’s defense conceded 13 rushing yards on three handoffs and 38 passing yards on two completions in eight attempts. It was from this seating that Sopoaga was able to register his first statistic in a Patriots uniform – a batted pass intended for tailback Felix Jones in the flat.
Based on his rep volume opposite the guard, it appears that New England will proceed by having Sopoaga play about as much three-tech as zero-tech. This should keep him active – regardless of whether or not the defense is in its base – while also providing Vellano and Jones with breathers.
By the time New England defeated Pittsburgh 55-31, Sopoaga had played 27 snaps. He finished with no tackles and a batted pass in the Nov. 3 tilt, earning a 1.7 overall grade from Pro Football Focus.
Albeit a limited sample size, there’s reason to believe Sopoaga’s presence will grow in the coming weeks, offering the Patriots a stout interior body who can play nose, the one-technique and the three-technique to enforce the run.
Sopoaga may be rendered a nose tackle, but he won’t be restricted to that title in New England’s adaptive defensive front.