Can Isaac Sopoaga Fix the Patriots Woeful Run Defense?

Erik FrenzSenior Writer IOctober 29, 2013

Aug 15, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga (97) during the second quarter against the Carolina Panthers at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles defeated the Panthers 14-9. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

With the New England Patriots sending a fifth-round pick to the Philadelphia Eagles for defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga and a sixth-round pick, a trend is developing. The Patriots have made a last-minute trade of a late-round pick for a player that fills a need on defense two years in a row. 

Last year, they sent a fourth-round pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for cornerback Aqib Talib to help their troubled secondary. The trade, as reported by Zach Berman of The Philadelphia Enquirer, acts as a cavalry-call for reinforcements on the interior of the defensive line.

As of this morning, Patriots coach Bill Belichick said he had been too focused in game planning for the Steelers to be up-to-speed on all the moving parts about the looming trade deadline, but he acknowledged that it was a possibility, saying, "If something happens, it happens."

"Again, it's hard, it's always hard to predict [trades]," Belichick said on a conference call this morning. "Whether it’s at the 53-cut or like I said, last year with the Talib situation, that was one of those transactions that probably got turned in at about 3:59:45. So, you just never know. We'll see."

For the record, this one got handed in at 3:43 pm Eastern (sorry, I don't have the seconds). 

Sopoaga has played for the 49ers, as well as the Eagles, filling various spots in 4-3 and 3-4 alignments with those teams—defensive tackle in the 4-3, and defensive end and nose tackle in the 3-4. 

He has been a situational player for the Eagles thus far this season, playing 38.6 percent of the team's snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), primarily in run defense. That will likely continue to be his role with the Patriots, who are without defensive tackles Tommy Kelly and Vince Wilfork. The former may return at some point this season, but the latter will not, as he is on injured reserve with a torn Achilles.

As a result of the Patriots' injuries at defensive tackle, backups Joe Vellano and Chris Jones had been thrust into larger roles than previously expected. According to PFF, Vellano specifically played no more than 16 snaps a game in run defense in the Patriots' first four games of the season. Since Week 5 (the first game without Wilfork), Vellano has averaged 35 snaps per game in run defense.

The Patriots also recently had to activate defensive tackle Marcus Forston off the practice squad to help add some depth to the middle of the defensive line.

Patriots run defense, 2013
GamesRush att.Rush yds.YPATDTFL10+ yards
With Wilfork (4)1044204.04147
Without Wilfork (4)1486264.2331617

Opponents had begun honing in on that weakness up the middle. In the past two games alone, the Jets and Dolphins combined for 83 rush attempts, piling up 333 yards in the process. The Patriots currently field the league's second-worst run defense, yielding 130.8 yards per game on the ground, and 4.2 yards per carry ranking 22nd in the league. 

Jones and Vellano will likely remain major components of the Patriots defense, especially considering Sopoaga has not been an every-down player for the Eagles.

At 6'2" and 321 pounds, Sopoaga is almost an exact replica of Wilfork in terms of his size, and the Patriots are hoping he gives them anything close to what Wilfork provided against the run. The problem is, those kinds of players simply aren't available at the price the Patriots paid for Sopoaga.

When the Patriots got Talib for a fourth-round pick last year, the price was low because of his character problems, and the Buccaneers simply wanting to jettison a player who had been suspended several times and injured multiple other times.

With Sopoaga, however, the price is low because at 32 years old, he's simply not the dynamic defensive tackle he was earlier in his career. His depth will help the rotation, but to expect a 180-degree turn for the Patriots run defense (as Talib provided for the pass defense a year ago) is a bit drastic, at this stage.

Sopoaga may not be the fix-all for the woes of the Patriots run defense, but considering how little they gave up to get him, the risk is definitely worth the reward.



Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or via team news releases.