Replacing Vince Wilfork will not be easy, even if the Patriots made it look relatively effortless on Sunday night.
It’s impossible for one player to take the place of the 325-pound behemoth (as listed) in the middle of New England’s defense. There’s no player like him in the league. That’s why the Patriots took a rotational approach once the defensive captain came out of the game less than five minutes into the first quarter.
Even without Wilfork, the Patriots limited the Falcons to 58 yards on 15 carries for 3.9 yards per rush — their best effort of the season.
Joe Vellano was the immediate substitute. He played 32 snaps for Wilfork, with many coming in situations where the Falcons were likely to run the ball. Vellano is the most logical Wilfork replacement on the roster. He’s been the rotational tackle behind Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, and he can hold his ground in the run game and get pressure on the quarterback.
Vellano had more positive plays than negative against Atlanta. He didn’t get pushed around too much –even by double teams — and he was able to generate a little pressure in the pass game, despite getting double teamed. Vellano’s best play came on his sack, when he gave Peter Konz an impressive swim move and charged at Matt Ryan. It was the rookie’s first career sack. He had 13 1/2 during his career at Maryland.
Check out Vellano’s sack in the GIF below.
Vellano’s NFL debut in Week 1 was a bit of a disaster. He looked overmatched on the line and spent far too much time on the ground after getting pancaked by Buffalo’s offensive front. He’s improved every week since, though. The problem is, at just 300 pounds, he’s not a typical nose tackle. He can take on double teams, but he doesn’t excel at holding his ground in that role like Wilfork did.
Fellow rookie Chris Jones had 18 snaps in place of Wilfork. Jones was in a lot near the end of the game when the Falcons were determined to pass the ball on nearly every down. Jones, a sixth-round pick by the Texans in 2013, was an accomplished pass rusher at Bowling Green. He had 12 1/2 sacks his senior season and 28 during his four-year career.
Jones definitely looked more comfortable in the pass game than he did against the run. It’s reasonable to think Jones will keep improving the more time he spends in the defense. Like Vellano, though, Jones is 6-foot-2, 300 pounds. He’s not the type of player who can take on two gaps and hold his ground against a double team. When Jones is in the game, Kelly will likely be moving over to nose tackle — a role the defensive tackle has filled before — but the former Raider is better as the “under” defensive tackle.
Chandler Jones saw more snaps at defensive tackle than he did in any of the first three games of the season. He spent 25 plays at defensive tackle, and it wasn’t just on third down as had been the case in the first three weeks of the season. Jones typically played on the inside in long-yardage situations, but there were a few short-yardage plays, as well.
Jones had another strong game rushing from the inside, and he holds his ground pretty well against the run. Jones is undersized for a tackle at 265 pounds, but he’s very strong. When Jones plays the three-technique tackle role, Kelly kicks over to the nose.
The Patriots were also running plays with a three-man front. Typically, they showed this look in nickel with three linebackers on the field. Kelly was in at nose with Jones and Rob Ninkovich on the ends. This was likely done for two reasons: The Patriots wanted to get a third linebacker on the field (typically Jamie Collins) to help out on Tony Gonzalez and with Wilfork out, they had to get creative.
A three-man line of Ninkovich, Kelly and Jones is not a long-term solution, but it’s an interesting look, especially when Brandon Spikes or Dont’a Hightower (both over 250 pounds) helps out by rushing from the inside.
The Patriots will likely sign Marcus Forston or A.J. Francis to the 53-man roster off the practice squad — at least for the short term. There’s a chance the team brings in an outside replacement for Wilfork, but it’s Sept. 30. There are not many worthwhile candidates out there.
Like Vellano, Jones and Kelly, Forston and Francis are both better three-technique tackles than they are one-techniques. Francis is 6-foot-5, 315 pounds, but he was not overly stout against the run at Maryland when he was forced to play nose. Forston is 6-foot-3, 305 pounds and struggled to take on double teams during the preseason.
Moving forward, it looks like Kelly and Vellano will be asked to fill in for Wilfork as the two-gap player in the middle of the defense. Chris Jones, Chandler Jones and either Francis or Forston will be helping out in a rotation and Hightower, Spikes and Jerod Mayo will have to help fill the gaps in the middle of the line.
It will not be easy to replace Wilfork. But New England will have plenty of bodies to mix in and out to stay fresh. The Patriots got off to a good start by limited Atlanta’s run game, but it will get tougher down the road when New England has to play Buffalo, Carolina and Houston — three top-10 rushing offenses.
Check out how how each combination of the Patriots’ front seven fared against the run below.
Ninkovich-Wilfork-Kelly-Chandler Jones-Hightower-Mayo: two carries for nine yards, 4.5 yards per carry.
Ninkovich-Wilfork-Vellano-Chandler Jones-Hightower-Mayo: one carry for three yards, 3 yards per carry.
Ninkovich-Kelly-Vellano-Chandler Jones-Hightower-Mayo: five carries for 16 yards, 3.2 yards per carry.
Ninkovich-Vellano-Chris Jones-Chandler Jones-Hightower-Mayo: two carries for 11 yards, 5.5 yards per carry.
Ninkovich-Chris Jones-Kelly-Chandler Jones-Collins-Mayo: one carry for five yards, 5 yards per carry.
Ninkovich-Chris Jones-Kelly-Chandler Jones-Hightower-Mayo: two carries for nine yards, 4.5 yards per carry.
Ninkovich-Kelly-Vellano-Chandler Jones-Hightower-Spikes-Mayo: two carries for five yards, 2.5 yards per carry.