There are a handful of players the Patriots just can’t afford to lose. Vince Wilfork is one of them.
The perennial Pro Bowl defensive tackle suffered a torn Achilles in the first quarter of the Patriots’ 30-23 win in Atlanta on Sunday night, ending his season and severely hindering the Patriots’ Super Bowl hopes.
Just when it looked like the Patriots had settled their long lingering defensive deficiencies and even developed a top-10 unit for the first time in years, they lose their linchpin. It’s not as if everything they’ve built thus far will suddenly crumble and wither without Wilfork, but things will change.
Wilfork isn’t just a five-time Pro Bowler and captain defensive captain; he’s arguably the second-most important player on the Patriots behind Tom Brady and the unquestioned leader of this defense. His impact goes well beyond anything quantifiable on a stat sheet, which is why he’ll be almost impossible to replace.
Over the last three seasons, Wilfork has averaged around 52 tackles and three sacks from his place as the anchor of the defensive line. Those numbers seem like nothing a capable veteran or talented rookie might be able to replicate, but those figures don’t even come close to explaining his full value.
Wilfork has become such a force on the interior that teams are often forced to double team down on him with a center and a guard. That opens up gaps in the offensive line and allows one-on-one opportunities for the likes of Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones and even Brandon Spikes to rush. At 6-foot-2 and 325 pounds, Wilfork is also a force to be reckoned with in the running game. He constantly clogs running lanes up the middle, pushing lineman back into the backfield and constantly forcing running backs to cut back and search for new holes.
The Patriots entered the season thin at defensive tackle, carrying just four into Sunday night’s game in Atlanta, and now that need at the position becomes even more glaring. Tommy Kelly and rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones rotated in at Wilfork’s spot on Sunday, but, as good as they were against the Falcons, no combination of them can fill Wilfork’s shoes throughout an entire season.
Bill Belichick knows that as well as anyone, and he will be relying on Kelly and the rest of his linemen to assume extra responsibility in Wilfork’s place.
“He’s an outstanding player, we all know that,” Belichick said during a conference call on Monday. “Obviously if he’s not there, it will mean everybody having to pull a little bit more weight on their end.”
As much as that comment might appear to be directed toward the defensive line, it should resonate throughout the defense. The Patriots are currently sixth in the NFL in points allowed (14.3 per game), 13th in rushing yards (105) and 17th against the pass (241), and they’ve been even better than the numbers suggest. Yet now they’ll need to work even harder to maintain, never mind improve, those standards.
Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Spikes need to prove that the Patriots still boast one of the best linebacking corps in the NFL, maintaining their staunch run defense and beefing up against the pass. Jones and Ninkovich have to show that they can maintain their pass-rushing success without Wilfork consistently eating up blockers on the inside. Aqib Talib will be relied upon even more to be the shutdown cornerback he’s been through the first four weeks of the season. Alfonzo Dennard, Devin McCourty and even Kyle Arrington should expect more pressure in the secondary, too. It will need to be a unified effort to overcome Wilfork’s absence.
There’s no doubting that the Patriots are talented on defense. Glance over the names listed above again and you’ll find yourself nodding in agreement at the impressive group Belichick has put together. But, much like an army would be lost without a general, the Patriots’ defense might be lost without Wilfork, at least for the next few weeks.
Mayo and McCourty, the team’s other two defensive captains, will assume the leadership role missing in Wilfork’s absence. But no one on the Patriots’ current roster or in free agency can replace him on the field — and that’s where it really matters.
Kelly will do his best to make a Wilforkian impact, but even that will be limited. The learning curve for Jones and Vellano will likely be hastened, though their ceilings only go so high. Marcus Forston should get the call up from the practice squad and be given a chance to prove himself, but he’s still very raw. And there’s always Armond Armstead, who has the ability to make a major impact but first will need to be activated off the non-football injury list.
Adjusting to life without Wilfork will be a serious challenge for the defense. It will test their versatility on a week-to-week basis and undoubtedly slow their development into one of the league’s best.
It won’t be an easy transition, but the Patriots do have the talent and coaching to overcome even a loss this great. But they’ll need to be patient.