The New England Patriots have fiddled with rotations at nearly every position this season and defensive tackle has been under the spotlight. The team had to replace stalwart Vince Wilfork and the investment of the past two first round picks in defensive tackles had to pay off at some point.
While there are currently six defensive tackles on the roster, only five see active time (Khyri Thornton was likely promoted to prevent another team from signing him from the practice squad). All five defensive tackles now have serious roles in the rotation.
Alan Branch is primarily a run stuffer in the 4-3 front, but also feature strongly as the two-gapping defensive end in the 3-4 defense. Branch is trusted with staying on the field for full drives.
Akiem Hicks plays a fairly similar role, which means that he and Branch rarely on the field at the same time. Hicks has been taken off the field on passing downs in favorite of a better pass rusher.
Sealver Siliga will stay in the middle of the formation as the nose tackle. He, like Branch, will stay on the field for full drives. Siliga is expected to manage two gaps a fair amount of the time.
Malcom Brown is the rookie and he's still learning his role. He has taken tremendous strides since the bye week and is now entrusted with being one of the primary rotational 4-3 defensive tackles, and he also holds the point on clear passing downs because he's able to shed his blockers so quickly. The team uses him primarily with single gap responsibility.
Dominique Easley is the jackknife that does everything. They use him at every spot in the 4-3 and 3-4 front. He faces double teams because he wins most of his one-on-ones and he spends a good portion of his time disrupting the offensive line.
All five players have roles, ranging from highly specialized (Hicks) to extremely broad (Easley). The rotation was in full effect against the Colts
Early in the game, the Patriots featured rotations with Branch, Siliga, Hicks, and Brown because the team needed to focus on stopping running back Frank Gore on early downs, and forcing -and-long situations. Early in the game script, with the game still undecided, Easley spent time as the 3rd down specialist to accent the pass rush.
As the game wore on and New England developed a lead, the roles changed. Hicks and Branch played less as the Patriots knew the Colts had to throw the ball. Brown and Easley played a lot as they were allowed to attack linemen one-on-one.
Officials couldn't call holding on every play against the Colts, but they were literally grabbing their legs. pic.twitter.com/eBlNY43SLX— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) October 21, 2015
The Patriots have found a defensive combination that is similar to the usage of LeGarrette Blount on offense. After Dion Lewis wears down the defense, Blount knocks them over. After the Patriots stop the run and build the lead with Branch, Hicks, and Siliga, Easley and Brown are waiting in the wings to knock the offensive line over.
Dominique Easley, Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins. Three athletic freaks all on one side. pic.twitter.com/b7DVxAa6b2— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) October 21, 2015
Unlike the offensive line rotation, which seems to be used as a buffer against injury, the defensive linemen each are given a function that aligns with their skill set. No matter what the game plan will be (single gap? double gap? penetrate? contain? run stuff? pass rush?) there are multiple players that fit the job description.