Akiem Hicks is a lucky guy. Originally a third round draft choice in 2012 by the New Orleans Saints, the 6'5'', 320-ish pound defensive tackle would probably have spent another January – the third in four years – at home had he stayed with his old team. On September 30, however, the then-25 year old was traded from Louisiana to Massachusetts; from the 0-3 Saints to the 3-0 New England Patriots.
New England shipped tight end Michael Hoomanawanui south in order to obtain Hicks' services. While Hoomanawanui has performed well in limited snaps in New Orleans, Hicks has become an integral member of the Patriots interior defensive line – especially now that Dominique Easley's season has ended on injured reserve.
With an increase in snaps, the Patriots saw an increase in Hicks' production. He had his best games as a member of the team the last two weeks against the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans. The defensive tackle registered 10 tackles, three sacks and one touchdown in weeks 14 and 15.
Let's take a look at the film to analyze Hicks' recent play.
1) 2-4-HOU 40 (5:54) (Shotgun) 22-C.Polk up the middle to HOU 41 for 1 yard (72-A.Hicks).
While Hicks has produced a couple of highlight reel plays the last two weeks, his unsung work – mostly against the run – should not go unnoticed. One such play occurred in the first quarter of the Patriots' 27-6 victory in Houston.
With New England up 7-0, the Patriots' defense aligned with five potential rushers on the line of scrimmage. Hicks (72), Alan Branch (97) and Jabaal Sheard (93) lined up as the down-linemen in a three point stance, while the team also used two outside linebackers, Jamie Collins (91) and Rob Ninkovich (50). Hicks lined up as the 3-technique on the outside shoulder of Houston's left guard Xavier Su'a-Filo (71):
At the snap, the Patriots blitzed both middle linebacker Jerod Mayo (51), who originally lined up five yards off the line of scrimmage, and safety Patrick Chung (23). Collins worked as a spy on running back Chris Polk (22), who received the hand-off. The Texans' blockers initially did a good job of picking up the pressure, which in turn created one-on-one match-ups across the board.
However, Mayo's well-timed A-gap blitz put a lot of pressure on the offensive line and forced Polk to run behind the left side of the formation. There, Hicks took advantage of tackle Duane Brown (76), who was suddenly left without inside help due to Mayo's blitz, not getting low enough during his block:
Hicks did a good job of disengaging from Brown and taking down Polk after a gain of only one yard. This play is a good example of how little things – like an A-gap blitz – can create tension across the offensive board. Tension, which can be taken advantage of by a defense. Then again, the Patriots needed to win their one-on-one battles in order to minimize the yardage gained by the play. Hicks did just that, showing good technique and upper body strength in the process.
2) 4-3-NE 34 (9:24) (Shotgun) 7-B.Hoyer sacked at NE 38 for -4 yards (72-A.Hicks). HOU-7-B.Hoyer was injured during the play. He is Out.
Hicks, who played 44% of the defense's snaps against Houston, was solid against the run but his most notable contributions came in the passing game: he registered two sacks on the day (a third one was reversed to an incomplete pass instead of a sack and fumble). While both of his quarterback take-downs were the direct result of tight coverage by the secondary, Hicks still showed the ability to recognize and finish a play when the opposing passer is intent to leave or move around in the pocket. The first of his two sacks against the Texans is a good example for this.
Down three touchdowns midway through the fourth quarter, Houston faced a 4th and 3situation. New England's defense used only one traditional defensive tackle on the play: Hicks, who aligned in a three-point stance as the 1-technique opposite the center's right shoulder:
The Texans having 10 personnel on the field (one running back, four wide receivers) indicated that the team would pass. Therefore, the Patriots' countered with a lighter package that featured Collins and Ninkovich as the linebackers, Sheard and Chandler Jones (95) both aligning in a wide-9 position and safety Nate Ebner (43) as a spy on running back Jonathan Grimes (41).
At the snap, the Patriots rushed all but Ebner, who covered Grimes out of the backfield, and thus had six players in coverage. Due to some tight coverage by the secondary, as well as Jabaal Sheard pressuring Hoyer's blindside, the quarterback was forced to climb the pocket to buy some time and avoid Sheard:
In the meantime, however, Hicks was able to shake free from center Ben Jones (60) by using a spin-move. The defensive tackle saw Hoyer moving up in the pocket and sacked him for a loss of four and a turnover on downs. He recognized the play perfectly and once again displayed good technique in executing his pass rushing move to get away from his blocker and make a play.
3) 3-9-TEN 26 (14:00) (Shotgun) 8-M.Mariota sacked at TEN 17 for -9 yards (95-C.Jones). FUMBLES (95-C.Jones), touched at TEN 7, RECOVERED by NE-72-A.Hicks at TEN 0. TOUCHDOWN. TEN-8-M.Mariota was injured during the play. His return is Questionable. Penalty on TEN-77-T.Lewan, Illegal Use of Hands, declined. NE 95-Jones 11.5 sacks for season, ties career high.
The ability to quickly recognize what is happening on a play also paid off last week against the Tennessee Titans. Early in the second quarter, with the Patriots up 7-0, the Titans were facing 3rd and 9. New England showed blitz in an attempt to confuse rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) and had its pass rush package – given the down and distance – on the field. As he does often, Hicks aligned as the 1-technique opposite the center's right shoulder:
Jordan Richards (37) and Collins didn't rush and instead dropped into coverage, leaving only four rushers: Hicks, Sheard, Jones and Dont'a Hightower (54). 2012 first-round draft picks Jones and Hightower lined-up as 9-technique edge defenders, using a speed rush to put pressure on the offensive tackles. While Hightower, with heavy traffic in front of him, used a stunt to get to Mariota, Jones simply attacked Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan (77) and engaged him in a one-on-one battle:
The Pro Bowl defensive end was able to overpower his opponent (despite Lewan getting flagged for illegal hands to the face) and used his long arms to knock the football out of Mariota's right hand.
In the meantime, Hicks was trying to fight off a double block, which dissolved due to a) Hightower's stunt and b) center Andy Gallik (69) losing balance and falling down. Therefore, at the time the football was fumbled, only three players actually looked towards the backfield: Jones, Lewan and Hicks:
Jones naturally tried to recover the loose football but was immediately tackled by Lewan, which caused the ball to simply alter its course. Hicks reacted immediately, ran towards the ball and recovered it for the first touchdown of his three-plus year career:
Not only did Hicks react quickly to scoop up the fumble, he also was winning at the point of attack. Had he not successfully driven Gallik back with his bull-rush in the first place, he might not have been in a position to recover the football.
4) 2-9-NE 47 (4:33) (Shotgun) 8-M.Mariota sacked at TEN 48 for -5 yards (72-A.Hicks).
By the time Hicks scored the touchdown, he had already registered a sack. It came on a 2nd and 9 in the first quarter, which ultimately led to a Tennessee punt. On the play, New England used two defensive tackles: Hicks, playing the 3-technique, and rookie Malcom Brown (90), playing the 2-technique:
The Patriots initially only rushed three – Hicks and Brown together with Chandler Jones – but used Mayo on a delayed blitz, made possible by Sheard covering running back Antonio Andrews (26) in the flat.
At the snap, Hicks was again able to drive his opponent – guard Chance Warmack (70) – back, causing the young quarterback to feel the pressure around him. Due to the Patriots using seven players in coverage and the Titans' receivers being unable to gain separation, Mariota was forced to move around in the pocket. Because of his excellent footwork, Hicks got inside leverage on Warmack – enough to take down the up-moving quarterback:
Hicks displayed his strengths on this play: he used his power to drive Womack off his position, used sound technique to free himself from the blocker and showcased good vision to locate Mariota and take him down.
When New England traded for Akiem Hicks, he was seen as a role player with upside. With Easley now on injured reserve and more chances coming his way, Hicks is starting to show this upside – and why the Patriots were willing to send another player to New Orleans in order to get him. Quietly, he has become an important member of New England's defense.