NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
It was after 6 p.m. on an October Tuesday when the news broke. But the news wasn’t announced via press release, an agent or a reporter.
It came directly from the source.
“Proud to say I am now officially a New England Patriot!,” 23-year-old defensive tackle Sealver Siliga posted on Twitter, along with a photo of himself pointing to the Patriots poster surfacing the wall behind him.
New England had signed Siliga the practice squad – a familiar destination for the well-traveled Utah Ute. And perhaps because of that, expectations were tempered.
Since going undrafted as a junior entrant in 2011, Siliga had been cut by the San Francisco 49ers, the Denver Broncos, traded to the Seattle Seahawks and cut thrice more. The 6’2”, 325-pounder had been a member of two practice squads and played in one career game.
Although after just five weeks on New England’s eight-man roster, Siliga was promoted to the 53-man roster. He’s played in five games since, starting four of them. He’s totaled 23 tackles and three sacks over that span.
Yet as an interior defensive lineman, Siliga’s true purpose with the Patriots hasn’t been seen in numbers.
It’s been seen in the lanes he’s cleared for teammates.
With the width, arm length and leg strength required to fulfill 4-3 under tackle duties, Siliga has found a role in New England’s 29th-ranked rushing defense. His role hasn’t been carved by an ability to make tackles, though; it’s been carved by an ability to free his front members to do so.
Tracking down running backs is not a common occurrence for Siliga; he ran a 5.38 40-yard dash at his pro day nearly three years ago. But what he has tracked down are the blocks barricading him from running backs.
By either creativity and design, many of Siliga’s uphill battles have been won vicariously through others. This was illustrated versus the Miami Dolphins in Week 15.
The situation was a 2nd-and-4 from Miami’s 40-yard line. The play call was an outside-zone run to the strong side. Elusive halfback Lamar Miller had already compiled 14 yards on two carries, and he was looking for more against New England’s 4-2 nickel defense on the fourth snap of the game.
The Dolphins employed “21” personnel with tight ends Charles Clay and Dion Sims manning the left side of the line ahead of Miller. The alignment would be about more than the tight ends, however; it would be about the offensive line functioning as one entity to orchestrate the zone blocking scheme.
In which, Clay would take cornerback Aqib Talib. Sims and left tackle Bryant McKinnie would take right defensive end Chandler Jones. Left guard Sam Brenner would take Siliga’s three-technique. Center Mike Pouncey and right guard John Jerry would take linebackers Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower. Right tackle Tyson Clabo would take defensive tackle Chris Jones. And wide receiver Brian Hartline would take two-point left end Rob Ninkovich.
On the other side of the line, the leftward zone would be a test of reaction and muscle for Siliga. He would he have to forge the guard instead of the B-gap, because the B-gap was temporary. And if both linebackers found themselves halted at the second level, much of the slack would rest on Siliga at the point of attack.
This was evidenced as Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill handled the snap and exchanged with the 5’10”, 218-pound rusher.
Miami’s line got a quick jump, but it was met by New England’s.
Talib diagnosed the front-side play and arced outside Clay, while strong safety Steve Gregory traced nearby to monitor the C-gap. Spikes and Hightower and anticipated the handoff and approached the inside, but Spikes was soon cut off by Pouncey. All while on the back side, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and Ninkovich played contain, but Ninkovich was slowed by Hartline.
In the thick of the trenches was another story. Chandler Jones established ground on the outside shoulder of Sims, just as Chris Jones established ground on the inside shoulder of Clabo.
Siliga dug in off his first step and didn’t recede. He used his well-grounded leverage to drive through the laterally moving Brenner.
In turn, the Miami backfield had been permeated.
Chris Jones swim-moved Clabo to the grass. And Chandler Jones pressed in and around Sims to roadblock the run’s intentions.
Concurrently, Siliga divided the two Joneses and served as a barrier by pushing his man back upright into Miller’s foreground.
Siliga kept his feet moving and heavy hands shoving. As a result, he lifted Brenner off his right foot and afforded his enclosing linemen a chance to make a play on the restricted ball-carrier.
With little space to pursue, no cutback, and no time, Chandler Jones curved around the edge to wrap up Miller at the Miami 39.
Siliga made his presence felt without making contact with Miller. He helped guide his opponent into his run defenders, neutralizing the play before it could materialize.
The carry went for a one-yard loss.
No. 71 is not the prototype of a two-gap nose tackle that can absorb multiple blocks and eat space. Yet as a one-gap defensive tackle, he has been able to use his frame to move blockers and sway running lanes.
That has translated in pass rush.
In Week 16 against the Baltimore Ravens, Siliga was able to get to the quarterback for his second sack in as many weeks. But his efforts facing the pass went beyond hitting Baltimore’s Joe Flacco.
Six plays into the second half on a 3rd-and-3, the Ravens turned to an “11” grouping. The plan was a levels concept out left between wideout Jacoby Jones and tight end Dennis Pitta, and it was a verticals concept out right between receivers Torrey Smith and Marlon Brown.
Flacco stood in shotgun with running back Ray Rice flanked next to him for blitz pickup.
New England’s nickel defense countered with a loaded two-up, two-down line. It was a look that exuded pressure, as linebackers Hightower and rookie Jamie Collins loomed over the B- and A-gaps.
It was a façade. The six-man front was only a four-man rush. Ninkovich was spying on Rice, and Collins was sugaring the inside only to assume coverage on Pitta.
The zone blitz entrusted Chandler Jones to jam Pitta off the line and then jailbreak for the inside. For the stunt to be well-executed, others would have to draw a blocks and split the protection scheme.
Enter Siliga and Hightower.
From the one-technique across from Ravens center Gino Gradkowski, and from the three-technique across from right guard Marshal Yanda, Siliga and Hightower were prepped to crash the inside shoulders of their respective assignments.
If effective, the blockers would slide left and open a void right.
And as Flacco took the snap, the beginning stages of that plan transpired.
Siliga and Hightower punched inside, engaging with their counterparts and swerving the line outside the hashes.
Meanwhile Ninkovich and Chandler Jones departed from their stand-up defensive end spots, which left offensive tackles Michael Oher and Eugene Monroe unable to occupy blocks.
And once Collins received coverage responsibilities on Pitta, the delayed rush was in the works.
Chandler Jones circled behind Chris Jones and veered downhill towards the emerging gap Hightower and Siliga had opened.
Siliga dragged his man into the left guard and left tackle, and Hightower bulled through to release him after the pile congested.
Both Joneses shot into the opening with their sights on Flacco, who had been flushed from the pocket.
Siliga ripped out of his block and followed suit.
Flacco was chased outside the tackle box and was forced to throw the ball away just as Chandler Jones yanked him down. It wasn’t a sack. But it was just as effective as one for the Patriots.
The pressure was not only a byproduct of pass rush; it was a byproduct of pushing the pile and prying the pass rush loose. Hightower and Siliga had set the inside.
In the regular season finale against the Buffalo Bills, Siliga was a contributor in both the run and the pass. On a 4th-and-1, he lunged low and launched linebacker Dane Fletcher high to tackle Thaddeus Lewis’ QB sneak for a one-yard loss. On a 3rd-and-10, he zeroed in on a scrambling Lewis for a fumbled 13-yard loss.
Now Siliga may never be a prototypical run-stuffer in the mold of Vince Wilfork. He may never be a pass-rusher in the mold of Tommy Kelly. For all intents and purposes, he may never be in the mold of a perennial starter for the Patriots.
But Siliga is doing what’s been asked of him. He’s clearing lanes.
And much like his signing announcement over two months ago, few saw it coming.