The New England Patriots spent a first round pick in 2014 on defensive tackle Dominique Easley, who has a lot to prove. Easley tore his ACL in his final year at Florida, his second-such injury. He played sparingly as a rookie before taking on a greater role after Chandler Jones' hip injury. Easley put together a great regular season game against the Colts, but was placed on the injured reserve to prevent his knee from handling additional stress prior to his being at full health.
There's just one preseason game on film, and Easley only played the first half of the game, but there was plenty to takeaway from his first game back. I believe that there were enough positives on tape to think that he'll start to be an impact player by the backstretch of the season, after he shakes off all of the rust.
What's important to note when watching the Packers game is the mobility of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Bill Belichick changes the scheme for his defensive front based upon the mobility of the opposing quarterback. Any quarterback that is a threat to run means the defensive line doesn't rush the quarterback with reckless abandon; instead, the defensive line tries to contain the quarterback in the pocket and prevent the quarterback from extending plays.
Head coach Bill Belichick admit the defensive front wasn't perfect against the Packers.
"There were times we didn't do a good job in our overall coordination of the pass rush, and [Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers] escaped the pocket relatively easily," Belichick said in a Friday press conference. "That's really just more of a communication and discipline of our pass rush against that type of a quarterback.
"That same type of thing could come up and the quarterback [could] not take advantage of it, so you get a little bit of a misconception that everything was okay on a play when really it wasn't."
So just because a player gets into the backfield, it doesn't mean that it was a positive because it could have resulted in an open escape lane for Rodgers. And just because a player doesn't rush into the backfield, it doesn't mean the play was a negative. Easley had his share of both.
Against the Run
Keep in mind that Easley spent most of his time playing in front of Jonathan Freeney and not the likes of Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins, or Jerod Mayo. When Belichick says that a player does his job it means that Easley could do his job perfectly, but if another player doesn't do their job, the opposition could have a positive play.
Note that Easley is lined against the Packers right guard. The fullback aims to clear a lane between the right guard and tackle, a target evidenced by how the center pivots to try and block at the second level. Running back Eddie Lacy is a great player and manages to cut back across the face of Malcom Brown. You can see that Easley bulls his blocker back into the fullback and closes the original rushing lane for Lacy.
Rookie Trey Flowers uses his strength to close down Lacy's cutback lane, but Easley did his job to disrupt the Packers original game plan.
A more aggressive LB would've had a big stop here. pic.twitter.com/cj1KeNJxbD— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) August 16, 2015
Easley had himself an impact and disruptive day against the run, even though the play didn't end with his performance. In the above image, Easley gets in the running back's rushing lane (again), but linebacker Freeney is on his heels and not charging downhill into the open gap. I believe that any of the Patriots starting linebackers would have immediately clogged the lane, instead of allowing the Packers offensive linemen to recover.
I think Dominique Easley might be back (#99) https://t.co/EXPKCenLrs— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) August 14, 2015
There were plays that the defense cleaned up after Easley made a great play. Here Rufus Johnson (#70) closes up the running back's original rushing lane and Easley clears the inside of the pocket and prevents the back from having a cutback lane. Easley shows the fantastic strength and burst he was known for as a draft prospect and the defense is able to capitalize.
This is the type of disruption from Easley that doesn't make the stat sheet, but allows Sheard to make the TFL on 4th pic.twitter.com/VD3rnPg87h— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) August 16, 2015
Here you can see that Easley is one of two defenders able to hold the line of scrimmage on 4th and 1. He holds up the interior and allows Jabaal Sheard to come inside and trip up the runner short of a first down. If there's one thing that can't be denied of Easley, it's that he's shown the stoutness to hold up on the interior.
Look at Dominique Easley fighting across the LoS to make a play. This is strength. https://t.co/6dSIr9JhnU— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) August 16, 2015
The success of Easley on this play is in the eye of the beholder. While I believe this was a great show of strength and endurance as he fights his way to defend and outside run, some could point to the fact the runner still picked up four yards. I believe the hesitance by James Morris (LB, #49) allowed for a bigger gain that what could have occurred had the lane been clogged, but that's just my projection on how the other linebackers would react. I believe that Easley did his job, and then did more by fighting for the tackle.
Against the Pass
I think it's fair to say that Easley's disruption wasn't as evident against the pass as it was against the run. The Packers mixed in plenty of quick passes to negate the Patriots pass rush, and Easley also spent plenty of time in "contain" instead of in a pass rushing capacity. Additionally, it seems as if he wasn't able to generate much interior penetration when he was asked to rush the quarterback.
Here the play calls for manufactured pressure with Easley stunting around third round pick Geneo Grissom. Unfortunately, Jabaal Shead gets pinched inside so there is no outside contain and Easley's rush to Rodgers leaves a scrambling lane exposed. This is exactly what Belichick was talking about when it comes to positive/negative diagnoses of a play outcome. Did Easley do his job by stunting and generating the pressure? Or should he have peeled outside when he saw Sheard squeezed inside of his stunt?
The coaches will certainly look at this, but just because Easley generated pressure on this play doesn't mean that it was the right play.
I like how Dominique Easley kept engaging with the outlet back every time. https://t.co/DOGOacOujL— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) August 16, 2015
With that said, Easley seemed to be developing a habit of hitting the running back every time the back was about to turn into the outlet receiver. He did it multiple times throughout the first half. It shows that Easley's job wasn't only to get after the quarterback- he also had to impact the running back.
Of course, there's not much else to show of Easley as a pass rusher. Beyond his utility as an outlet disrupter, his primary function was that of contain.
Patriots DL in contain. pic.twitter.com/OfKsjCUFxU— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) August 16, 2015
It is still uncertain on what Easley's impact could be as a pass rusher as either Easley didn't show much, or the coaching staff didn't give him the opportunity. Both of those possibilities are negatives: either Easley was unable to beat his blockers when asked to pressure, or he wasn't asked to pressure and the coaches didn't use the potent skill set of one of their players.
If I had to grade Easley's performance in the first game, I would say that he was greatly effective as a run defender and less-than effective as a pass rusher. When the Patriots line up against quarterbacks like Drew Brees and Eli Manning, it's possible that the Patriots will uncork Easley's pass rushing ability, but based on the first game there was still something to be desired.
But against the run? Easley was truly special and flashed on play after play after play. If and when he aligns with a stronger group of linebackers, Easley "doing his job" could result in plenty of tackles for loss by Mayo, Hightower, and Collins.
The growth of the 23-year-old Easley is still just beginning after his return from injury and he showed enough in his first snaps back to warrant excitement for his encore performance.