Aqib Talib, Nate Solder Have Emerged as ‘Elite’ Players at Their Respective Positions and Other Patriots Thoughts

Vincent Jackson, Aqib TalibFOXBORO, Mass. — Vince Wilfork‘s injury won’t just shake up the defensive line, it could change Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia‘s defensive philosophy.

The Patriots did a nice job stopping Atlanta’s rushing attack on Sunday night, but New England had struggled against the run in the first three weeks of the season.

Joe Vellano and Chris Jones will likely be the immediate contributors in the middle of the defense, but the Patriots could get creative in filling in for Wilfork.

Check out my thoughts on Wilfork and how the Patriots stack up through the first four games of the season in this week’s No-Huddle Offense feature.

1. Jamie Collins received more snaps than Brandon Spikes against the Falcons.

It will be interesting to monitor both players’ snap counts moving forward this season. With Vince Wilfork out, the Patriots may go to more 3-3-5 sets in nickel, rather than the typical 4-2-5. On obvious passing downs, Collins will likely get the nod. On downs when the opposition could still run the ball, it will likely be Spikes.

Bill Belichick likes to get the best 11 players on the field at the same time. Now that Wilfork is injured, that’s pretty obviously Chandler Jones, Tommy Kelly, Rob Ninkovich, Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Devin McCourty, Steve Gregory and Spikes. Spikes can be a liability in coverage, though. So against speedier tight ends, Collins will likely be in, as he was against Tony Gonzalez.

2. LeGarrette Blount made the bigger play against Atlanta, but Stevan Ridley was still the better running back.

Blount appeared to be the big winner in the backfield on Sunday night, but Ridley is still the much harder, more violent runner. He gets extra yards on every play and even flashed his receiving skills with two catches for 26 yards.

3. Steve Gregory has taken a big leap forward this season.

There were some complaints about Gregory’s play on Sunday, but I think they’re unwarranted. The safety was perhaps the only player on the field who appeared he could cover Tony Gonzalez without help. It seems like a year in the system really helped Gregory, who continues to solidify the back of the Patriots’ secondary with McCourty.

4. Zach Sudfeld has not lived up to lofty expectations yet.

Sudfeld and Kenbrell Thompkins were the breakout stars of the summer. While Thompkins’ impressive preseason has translated into the fall, Sudfeld’s has not. An injury that kept him out of Week 2 probably didn’t help. But Tom Brady has also shown a lack of confidence and trust in Sudfeld. That will happen when a player’s first NFL target turns into an interception.

5. Nate Solder should be viewed as one of the best tackles in football.

As the rest of the offensive line has shown moments of weakness, Solder has been a rock protecting Brady’s blindside. Solder has yet to allow Brady to get hit. He’s allowed seven hurries on the season, according to Pro Football Focus.

Solder doesn’t just excel in pass blocking, though. He’s great at opening holes in the run game, and he shows impressive mobility and balance when he gets to the second level.

6. Marcus Forston expected to fill in for Vince Wilfork.

Forston is expected to be the fill in for Wilfork on the 53-man roster once the big man goes on injured reserve. Forston played one game last season. He spent the rest of the season on the practice squad, where he’s been for the first four weeks of this season.

Forston was a top high school recruit who was never able to fully put it together at Miami. He’s not a prototypical nose tackle, but he should be able to contribute as a one- and three-technique.

7. Dane Fletcher has not been given a chance on defense.

We’re four games into the season and Fletcher has just one defensive snap to his name. I think, if given the chance, Fletcher could absolutely start at linebacker in the NFL. He had some impressive plays in the preseason, so that may be enough for a team to give him a shot next season, but it would be nice to see him get some snaps on defense this season.

8. Aqib Talib is a top-five cornerback in the NFL.

Talib is having an other-worldly season so far. He’s allowed five receptions on 19 targets for 81 yards with four interceptions. He has yet to allow a touchdown. By statistics only, Talib may be having the best season by a cornerback in the NFL. His level of competition has been high and he did a great job shutting down Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams, Julio Jones and Roddy White in the past two weeks.

So far, he’s been well worth the fourth-round pick the Patriots gave up for him and the one-year, $5 million contract he was given over the offseason.

9. Alfonzo Dennard is not on Aqib Talib’s level, but he’s having a great season.

Dennard has not been as impressive as Talib, but he’s a big reason the defense has improved so much this year. His stats don’t look amazing (15-31 for 266 yards and an interception), but he’s done a great job of shadowing his receiver down the sideline. Dennard also appears to be improving against the run.

10. Duron Harmon and Kanorris Davis stepped up in place of Matthew Slater and Marquice Cole.

The Patriots only allowed one punt return for six yards on Sunday. Slater and Cole are important to the overall team effort on special teams, but Harmon and Davis stepped up admirably in their place.

11. Tom Brady praises Kenbrell Thompkins’ ability to fight for the football.

Brady waxed poetic during his press conference on Wednesday about how important it is for receivers to fight for the ball. I may not have a bigger pet peeve than receivers who passively accept the ball, rather than go back and fight for it. So, I’m with Brady.

Thompkins has done a good job of that so far this season. The best example of Thompkins fighting for the ball came when Brady heaved up a prayer with pressure in his face. Thompkins had to come back and fight with an Atlanta defensive back for the 49-yard reception.

Have a question for Doug Kyed? Send it to him via Twitter at @DougKyedNESN or send it here.

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