FOXBORO, Mass. — Chris Jones and Joe Vellano could probably use a breath every once in a while.
That’s not what the two rookie defensive tackles are saying, though. But Jones’ and Vellano’s playing time is rare for players of their size, position and experience. Rookies typically aren’t every-down guys. Especially rookies like Jones, who was a sixth-rounder cut by two teams before catching on with New England, and Vellano, who went undrafted out of Maryland.
After Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly went down for the season, the Patriots didn’t have much of a choice. Jones and Vellano were the next men up. New England acquired some help in Isaac Sopoaga, but he didn’t spell either player much on Sunday night. In the weeks’ prior, Sopoaga, Jones and Vellano would all play at the same time, so once again, there was little time off the field
Jones has missed just 13 total defensive snaps since coming on as a starter in Week 6. He’s played 97.2 percent of the Patriots’ snaps on defense in that time span.
Vellano has been off the field for 96 snaps since his first game starting Week 5. He’s played 82 percent of the team’s defensive snaps in that time. Despite taking over as starters late, Vellano is 11th among NFL defensive tackles with 551 snaps. Jones is 17th on the season with 505.
That’s some impressive conditioning for the two rookies, especially since they’re used to playing just 12 or 13 games from their days in college.
“It’s one of those things when you’re in the game, you don’t really think about how tired you are,” Jones said. “You’re thinking about the next play every time after… One play’s done — boom — ‘what’s coming?’ There’s so many things you’re thinking about. It’s not just like, ‘Oh man, I’m worn out here. I gotta find a way to get a breath.’ It’s, they’re doing this, that’s our call. Really, I know my body feels tired, but my mind can’t feel I’m tired.”
Last season, Wilfork played in 81.3 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps. So Jones and Vellano are accomplishing something not even the All-Pro did in 2012.
“It’s something that — you gotta be in there to make plays. So, obviously it’s a good thing,” Vellano said. “But it is a longer season than you’re used to. You have to keep up with your body. The guys in there are bigger and stronger and you catch more hits and stuff. But you gotta stay up with your body during the week and make sure you get your condition then show up on Sunday. A lot of it takes place during the week so you can be prepared for it.”
Staying refreshed is a big part of it. Jones and Vellano both said they take pride in their conditioning.
“The whole D-line, we do a good job with the tempo in practice and everything like that,” Vellano said. “And weightlifting and stuff like that. Just keeping up with it.”
Fortunately, both players are used to playing a bulk of the snaps on defense. Jones said there were a lot of injuries at Bowling Green his junior and senior seasons, so the rotation along the line got smaller.
The biggest question is whether the amount of snaps is affecting either rookie’s play on the field.
“It shouldn’t,” Jones said. “If I’m in there for every play, I’m giving it all I got every play.”
It may be, though, not that Jones or Vellano would complain about getting playing time. It seems that as the season has progressed, both players have been less effective at holding their ground against the run. There was a period of time when Jones and Vellano appeared to be improving in that aspect, but the exhaustion may be overtaking the advancement.
The Patriots seemed to be encouraging Denver to keep running the ball in Week 12. That meant staying in nickel which had Jones and Vellano playing every snap in the second half.
Against teams not manned by Peyton Manning, Sopoaga should get more play. The Patriots also brought Sealver Siliga, another big body who should be able to eat up space in the middle of the defense, off the practice squad.
It’s admirable to watch Jones and Vellano on the field for every play. Their effort certainly isn’t suffering, which must be nice to see for Bill Belichick.
If Sopoaga, Siliga and maybe even Chandler Jones and Andre Carter could find their way into the rotation at defensive tackle more, it would likely be beneficial the rookies. Chris Jones could focus on what he excels at — getting after the passer — and Vellano would go back to being a better overall player.
Jones and Vellano are doing what good rookies do, though. They’re not gonna rock the boat.