The New England Patriots have spent the offseason getting larger and more athletic at defensive tackle. In place of the shorter Ishmaa'ily Kitchen, Dominique Easley, and Chris Jones, the Patriots have added the likes of 3rd round draft pick Vincent Valentine and free agent signing Terrance Knighton. Joe Vellano is now the only defensive tackle on the Patriots roster that is shorter than 6'2.
|Joe Vellano||6'1 3/8||306|
|Malcom Brown||6'2 3/8||319|
|Anthony Johnson||6'2 1/2||308|
|Vincent Valentine||6'3 5/8||329|
|Markus Kuhn||6'3 3/4||299|
|Alan Branch||6'5 3/4||324|
I posed the idea that the Patriots wanted larger defensive tackles due to the rise of the nickel, and that the defensive tackles need to be able to eat more space to open lanes for the smaller defenders. It turns out that the Patriots were probably taking advantage of a rule change.
When giving the Patriots a grade for their offseason, former general manager Bill Polian lauded the New England front office for their signing of free agent Terrance Knighton.
"The addition of Terrance Knighton was a master stroke as soon as the rule passed outlawing chop blocks," Polian gushed. "As usual, [the Patriots] were all over it before most others were."
So what is this rule change and how does it relate to the Patriots defensive ideology? I'm glad you asked.
The Rule Change
Back in March, the NFL owners voted to eliminate chop blocks from the game. To clarify some terms, a chop block occurs when Offensive Player A is engaged with Defensive Player A, and then Offensive Player B comes and blocks Defensive Player A below the waist.
A chop block is different from a cut block, which occurs when Offensive Player A blocks Defensive Player A below the waist in a one-on-one scenario. Cut blocks are still legal.
Prior to the rule change, there were a few scenarios where chop blocks were allowed on running plays. If Offensive Player A and Offensive Player B were immediately next to one another, then they would be allowed to chop block Defensive Player A.
Here is a video example, from the above link.
Tricks of the trade for DL vs the run especially vs Combo blocks. Holding the OL, preventing him from releasing. pic.twitter.com/PSSXTtjleQ— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) March 17, 2016
There was another exemption where two players not immediately next to one another could perform a chop block on a running player "when the flow of the play is toward the block." This wording was supposed to allow chop blocks on players that were moving with the play, with the assumption that the defending player should be aware if a second blocker was coming down to assist. This will likely affect teams that rely heavily on outside zone rushes.
So how does this impact the Patriots decision?
Defensive linemen will often hold the offensive linemen on rushing downs to prevent them from reaching the second level and to free up lanes for linebackers. Offensive linemen would use chop blocks as a way of countering these holds. Now that they can no longer literally take down the defensive tackle, defenders with great functional strength and length will be able to disrupt more plays.
The Patriots have added taller defensive tackles because they'll have a greater range of influence on the line of scrimmage. They have also added larger defensive tackles because the players need to be able to hold up against the legal double teams, which could become more prevalent.
Offensive linemen are now going to have to win their one-on-ones more often, and massive players like Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Terrance Knighton, and Vincent Valentine are Bill Belichick's challenge to opposing coaches. Offensive linemen generally won't have the strength to battle these players for an entire game, especially with the Patriots deep rotation, but double teams will open up opportunities for linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins to make plays.
When we watch the Patriots defensive tackles in 2016, don't be surprised if they use their length to engage and grab linemen off the snap to prevent rushing lanes from opening. Their massive size will also serve as the best counter against legal double teams.
The rule change could have an impact on how defenses play the run game. Bill Belichick and the Patriots will be the first to find out.