Feb 1, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) scrambles away from New England Patriots defensive tackle Sealver Siliga (96) in the first half in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
The New England Patriots lost their last link on defense to their previous Super Bowl teams and 2007 undefeated regular season unit with the release of veteran Vince Wilfork. Wilfork was the Patriots’ first round draft pick in 2004 and was the anchor of their defense the past decade. He played 818 snaps on defense last year and his production as a run-stuffer will be hard to replace.
New England spent their last two first round draft picks on interior defensive linemen preparing for this contingency. In 2014 it was Dominique Easley being taken with their top pick after he fell in the first round due to knee injuries. This year it was talented Texas tackle Malcom Brown who fell to the Patriots at the end of the first round. In addition, the Patriots re-signed veteran Alan Branch who came over at midseason to add a run stuffing presence to the defensive line.
Dec 28, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots defensive tackle Sealver Siliga (96) after the snap against the Buffalo Bills in the second half at Gillette Stadium. Buffalo Bills defeated the Patriots 17-9. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Sealver Siliga is often overlooked as a contributor on the defensive line as he was with the team a short time in 2013 and had an injury riddled 2014 season. Siliga is a premier run-stuffer with the strength and athleticism to get in the backfield and contribute as a pass rusher. A best fit as a 3-4 nose tackle lining up over the center, Siliga should be able to team with Branch to help stop opposing running games with penetrating pass rushers such as Easley, Brown and Chris Jones likely playing next to him.
Sealver Siliga’s name doesn’t carry the cache of a veteran like Vince Wilfork nor does it excite the fans like a first-round pick like Malcom Brown or Dominique Easley. But heading into 2015, the third-year New England Patriots defensive tackle may be one of the linchpins in what keeps the interior of the defensive line as a strength while the Patriots get linebackers healthy and cobble together a secondary.
Siliga attended Utah and after a strong junior year as a team captain he entered the 2011 NFL draft. Teams shied away from the massive defensive tackle despite his role as a competent run defender with a high motor. His lack of explosiveness and pass rushing ability on tape likely caused him to go undrafted. Siliga played just one regular-season game through a two-year period where he was in training camp and on practice squads in San Francisco, Denver, and finally Seattle. Midway through the 2013 season the Patriots–in desperate need of defensive line depth–signed Siliga away from Seattle to their practice squad.
January 19, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; New England Patriots defensive tackle Sealver Siliga (71) against the Denver Broncos in the 2013 AFC Championship football game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
At the time, the Patriots were actively looking for defensive line help as starters Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly had been lost for the season. The Patriots’ run defense was terrible and Siliga was on the practice squad from October to November as recently traded for veteran tackle Isaac Sopoaga stepped in. However, it was immediately apparent Sopoaga was not going to work out as he played just 120 snaps in New England and week twelve against Denver was the end of his significant playing time.
With Sopoaga and undrafted rookie Joe Vellano and scrap heap signing Chris Jones, a sixth-round pick of the Texans who was cut before week one, manning the interior defensive line Denver running back Knowshon Moreno went off for 224 yards rushing on Sunday night. Denver led 24-0 at halftime and even though Tom Brady led the Patriots back to a dramatic 34-31 overtime win, it was clear that the Patriots could not afford another game allowing 280 yards rushing if they had any aspirations of advancing in the playoffs. Three days later Siliga was promoted to the active roster.
He proceeded to start four of the five games he played in that year. Siliga took advantage of his opportunity quickly and caught the coaching staff’s eye with two run stops in just 12 snaps of run defense in his first game against Houston (per ProFootballFocus.com). He recorded 23 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble while totalling 17 run stops. Against the Colts in the Divisional Playoff game, Siliga had three tackles and a quarterback hit. Against Denver in the AFC Championship game although the Patriots eventually lost the game, the run defense limited Denver to just 107 yards on the ground. Siliga had five tackles including one for a loss.
Siliga’s emergence on the defensive line allowed him to win a roster spot despite missing most of training camp and the preseason with a hand injury. Veteran Tommy Kelly was released and Siliga started the 2014 season as the starter next to Vince Wilfork. A foot injury in week three against Oakland landed Siliga on short term injured reserve and he was sidelined until week fourteen.
Per ProFootballFocus.com his Run Stop Percentage was second-best in the NFL at 12.1% with 14 stops in just 116 run snaps. In addition he acquitted himself well as a pass rusher in 2014 with three sacks, two hits, and five hurries in just 109 pass rushing snaps. Siliga has shown the ability to be a two-gap closer who is able to use leverage against the run to be a dominant force. In addition, he has shown flashes of pass rush ability using his long arms to get off interior blockers and pass rush effectively. The only thing he has yet to show was whether he can remain healthy for an entire season.
Jan 10, 2015; Foxborough, MA, USA; Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (5) is sacked by New England Patriots outside linebacker Jamie Collins (91) and New England Patriots defensive tackle Sealver Siliga (96) during the fourth quarter in the 2014 AFC Divisional playoff football game at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots won 35-31. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
Siliga underwent a procedure on his foot this offseason and was not spotted among the players on the field during organized team activities and the mandatory minicamp. For linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower–both rehabbing from injuries this offseason as well–Siliga’s ability to open lanes for their run and pass blitzes and the defensive ends stunting pass rush is vital to the defense.
With Wilfork gone the Patriots more than ever will be counting on Siliga to be a productive front line player. Siliga needs to perform consistently and work with Branch to lead a young defensive interior. If he is healthy through training camp and into the regular season the Patriots have a potential superstar ready to emerge in 2015 in Sealver Siliga.