The cinderblocks were cemented back into place on Sunday, three months after Miami Dolphins running backs Knowshon Moreno and Lamar Miller broke through them for 193 rushing yards and a touchdown on 35 carries.
The wall the New England Patriots constructed in Week 15 looked fundamentally different than the one from Week 1. And unlike the three-man line assembled at Sun Life Stadium in September, the hybrid front was built with players who were built for it in December.
Enter the 6-foot-2, 325-pound Vince Wilfork, the 6-foot-2, 325-pound Sealver Siliga and the 6-foot-6, 335-pound Alan Branch.
The three defensive tackles set the Dolphins’ blocks back, redesigning rush lanes as others stood up to set the edges. And over the course of their combined 46 run snaps versus Miami, Miller and Daniel Thomas were able to clinch just 52 yards on 18 carries.
The Patriots were able to clinch the AFC East.
The 33-year-old Wilfork logged 18 snaps versus Miami’s running game, starting alongside Siliga and Chris Jones in a three-defensive tackle set. And through each of those 18 snaps, he was an active participant, even as early as the second play from scrimmage.
The 2004 first-round selection ended the divisional matchup having tackled Miller for one two-yard gain and two one-yard gains. He occupied space. He powered into Miami’s teeth – including right tackle Dallas Thomas and Pro Bowl right guard Mike Pouncey – to take away space. And once there, he discarded the blocks latched onto him with heavy hands and nimble footwork.
The Dolphins’ backfield was left to face the rest.
In his second game back from the foot injury that had sidelined him since Week 3, Siliga played 17 snaps against the run on Sunday. The 24-year-old former undrafted rookie finished having registered one tackle on a three-yard run by Miller, preceded by a zero-yard run by the 800-yard, six-touchdown rusher.
Siliga’s efforts started from the cleats up, staying ahead of his counterparts with responsiveness and a strong dig into the turf. The three-technique made the most of his long arms thenceforth, disengaging from the likes of left guard Daryn Colledge and center Samson Satele to wrap up the backs arriving in his jurisdiction.
And quietly, his lateral movement added to his effectiveness in doing so.
Once an Arizona Cardinals second-round draft choice, then a Seattle Seahawk and later a Buffalo Bill, Branch has since stepped into the Patriots’ rotation. He did just that opposite Miami, clocking in for 17 snaps with 11 coming against the run.
His presence helped keep the front multiple, working as a defensive end in three-man lines as well as a defensive tackle in four-man lines. In turn, the 29-year-old Michigan product notched one tackle over his opportunities on running downs. And though it was negated due to a facemask penalty on the Dolphins, he would not be cut out of other chances.
Bulling Colledge and the blocking scheme back on a loss of two demonstrated that. Branch proved tough to move in his sixth game with the Patriots, creating trouble at the point of attack and behind it.
While Siliga was still on short-term injured reserve when Branch was signed leading up to Week 9, the Patriots managed to hold opposing running backs to 249 yards and an average of 49.8 per game through Week 14.
Part of that was Akeem Ayers and Rob Ninkovich on the edges. Part of that was fellow interior linemen, Jones and Dominique Easley, shooting gaps. Part of that was linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins closing the corners. Yet on Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium, all of that continued, even if the players involved shifted form and Chandler Jones returned.
And as Miami’s offensive line shifted form and quarterback Ryan Tannehill returned to handling the football, Miller and Thomas found themselves restricted between the bookends out of the exchange. Between the two rushers, one double-digit run through the right A-gap and one six-yarder through the left A-gap were all that could be broken.
They’d have to take the toss wide to find more consistent openings.
Three of the duo’s four sprints to the flats garnered 18 yards. Another, however, garnered a loss of four.
But by the time it was over, those vacant runways had seldom been found.
Miami’s halfbacks had netted a long of 13 yards, followed by one run of 10 yards, eight yards, seven yards and six yards. Yet those lucrative yards were met by hard ones during the Dolphins’ 41-13 loss to the Patriots. Miller and Thomas were often met at the line or behind it, as 11 of their runs netted two yards or less, and five netted either no yards or a loss of yards.
No. 75, No. 96 and No. 97 were a pivotal part in why.