For the second year in a row, the Patriots made a move to improve their defense at the NFL’s trade deadline, this time acquiring veteran defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga from the Philadelphia Eagles on Tuesday.
The teams also swapped 2014 draft picks: the Patriots received a sixth-round pick and sent the Eagles a fifth-round selection.
Adding Sopoaga addresses a growing need on defense, with the Patriots having lost perennial Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork to a season-ending Achilles’ tendon injury last month. Tommy Kelly, another veteran defensive tackle, has missed the last three games with a knee injury. That’s left a pair of rookies, Joe Vellano and Chris Jones, to handle the majority of the snaps on the interior.
Without Wilfork and Kelly, opponents have tried to exploit the Patriots up the middle, with some recent success: The Patriots have given up 162, 131, 177, and 156 rushing yards in the past four games.
Sopoaga, 32, has been a proven run-stopper since being drafted by the 49ers in the fourth round in 2004. His numbers might not impress — he has 10 tackles this season and no sacks, and has just 7½ sacks in his 133-game career — but his value extends beyond the statistics.
He signed with the Eagles in March to a three-year, $11 million contract that included a $2.75 million bonus. He’s scheduled to make $3.75 million in 2014 and $3.5 million in 2015.
A year ago, the Patriots dealt for Buccaneers cornerback Aqib Talib at the trade deadline. He’s arguably been the team’s best defensive player this season, despite missing the past two games with a hip injury.
Earlier in the day, before the Eagles announced the trade, Patriots coach Bill Belichick said his focus was on the Steelers, Sunday’s upcoming opponent, not on making a deal.
“To be honest with you, I’ve been really at this point involved in game-planning and trying to get things organized here on Pittsburgh and all that, so at some point here I’ll catch up with the guys in our scouting department and see if there’s any movement,” Belichick said during the weekly coaches’ conference call.
“That’s always hard to predict. Last year, with the Talib situation, that was one of those transactions that probably got turned in at 3:59:45, so you just never know.’’
Belichick got a first-hand look at Sopoaga in August during training camp when the Patriots and Eagles had a series of joint practices prior to their preseason game. The same situation occurred a year ago with Talib; the Patriots and Buccaneers shared a practice field during camp last year, too.
The anticipated return of Zoltan Mesko to Gillette Stadium won’t be happening on Sunday because the Steelers waived the former Patriots punter Tuesday. Mesko lost a training-camp battle in New England with rookie Ryan Allen, but joined the Steelers the day after being released.
Mesko struggled mightily this season, ranking next to last in the NFL with a 42.5-yard average, and just three of his 34 punts being downed inside the 20-yard line. He also bobbled a snap and had a punt partially blocked, resulting in a touchdown, during last Sunday’s 21-18 loss to the Raiders.
“He’s been inconsistent and that’s not good enough. He needs to perform better,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday before the team announced the move.
Pittsburgh replaced Mesko by signing former Cowboys punter Mat McBriar.
Mesko was a popular Patriot during his three seasons here, and the team’s decision to go with Allen at the end of camp was a slight surprise. But Allen has kicked well, averaging 46.2 yards.
“I think his situational punting has been pretty good,” Belichick said of Allen. “He’s definitely got a big leg and the ability to change field position. I still think there’s a lot of room for improvement.”
Not half bad
Cornerback Logan Ryan had five tackles, two sacks, and forced a fumble Sunday against the Dolphins, an impressive stat line, especially for a rookie. The numbers stand out even more when taking into consideration that Ryan played only in the second half.
There was speculation that Ryan’s lack of first-half playing time had to do with the inappropriate gesture he made the week before, while scoring a touchdown on a 79-yard interception return. He was fined $10,000 by the NFL.
Ryan apologized, and after the Miami game he disputed the idea that the benching was his being disciplined. Belichick said after the victory that personnel moves are done to give the team the best chance to win.
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia echoed Belichick, saying the decision not to play Ryan in the first half was part of the game plan, not tied to any kind of punishment.
“I think it’s obviously a pretty simple question,” said Patricia. “Nothing really more than just sometimes different calls that we may have put into a particular situation or particular play involve different personnel groupings, so there just turned out to be a couple of those plays where he was out on the field in some of those groupings and situations and calls, and obviously was making the most of his opportunities in that situation.”
Days after rejoining the team, veteran defensive end Andre Carter played 20 snaps against the Dolphins. Patricia chose not to discuss Carter last week — the team had not announced his arrival at that point — but liked what he saw from the 13-year veteran Sunday. Carter, 34, was with the Patriots in 2011, played with the Raiders last season, and had not found a home this year until the Patriots came calling.
“Andre Carter is someone that we’ve had here previously, who certainly is a veteran player that comes in with a great amount of experience, professionalism, and just a great work ethic,” said Patricia. “Certainly someone who takes every day — from the meetings to the practice to the game — to really try to improve every aspect of what we’re trying to do.”
Vollmer to IR
The Patriots placed right tackle Sebastian Vollmer on injured reserve, officially ending his season after he broke a bone in his right leg Sunday. Vollmer, who was injured in the second quarter, had surgery to repair the break Monday. He was replaced in the lineup by Marcus Cannon . . . Danny Amendola, Nate Solder, and Matthew Slater participated in a facial shave at Gillette Stadium in preparation for “Movember,” which raises awareness of men’s health issues. Also taking part were New England Revolution players Kevin Alston, Chris Tierney, and 18-year-old Diego Fagundez . . . While discussing the Steelers’ offense, Patricia had this to say: “Their offense certainly centers around [quarterback] Ben Roethlisberger, but also — start with [offensive coordinator] Todd Haley and the job that he’s been able to do.” Steelers fans might disagree; Pittsburgh ranks 23d in total offense, and only the Jaguars, Texans, and Buccaneers have scored fewer points.