As you probably know by now, the Patriots have lost defensive tackle Vince Wilfork for the rest of the season due to an achilles tear that he suffered in last week’s game with the Falcons. This is devastating to the Pats, as Wilfork in my eyes was the most important defender on this New England roster, and replacing him will be next to impossible.
Unless Bill Belichick decides to trade for someone like Haloti Ngata, there is no way that the Pats run defense will be able to sustain the level of excellence that they have been at with Wilfork on the field. Vince’s sheer size makes it very hard for opposing offenses to run up the middle on the Patriots, mainly because Wilfork takes up at least two defenders, which opens up lanes for the linebackers to swoop in and make the play. With Wilfork gone, there is nobody in the middle that can absorb double teams like he can, and the run defense will sufferer because of it. To show you how important Wilfork has been to the Pats, here is a stat that has been circulating the airwaves since big Vince went down. Since 2009 when Wilfork has been on the field, New England is ninth in the NFL in terms of yards per rush. When Wilfork has been off the field, the Patriots slide all way down to 32nd in the league. That statistic does not bode well for the Patriots, and this will force Belichick and company to make some adjustments as the 2013 regular season marches on.
What I believe that the Patriots will do to attempt to replace Wilfork in the middle, is very similar to what they did on Sunday night. When Wilfork went down, we immediately saw undrafted free agent Joe Vellano inserted into the rotation at defensive tackle. I watched Vellano closely throughout the preseason, and I came away impressed with what I saw. He is dwarfed in size by his partners (and ex partner) Tommy Kelly and Wilfork, but he plays very well as a run defender, and at times he will flash some pass rushing skills as he did against Atlanta. Obviously, when I was watching Vellano in the preseason, I was expecting him to become a solid third option behind Kelly and Wilfork, but right now he is the best option the Patriots have at defensive tackle. Vellano has appeared in all four games so far this season, coming up with ten total tackles along with the sack of his career in the Pats win over the Falcons.
Coming into this 2013 regular season, the depth along the defensive line, specifically defensive tackle, was probably the weakest point of the Patriots roster. After Vellano, Wilfork, and Kelly they did not have many players that seemed capable of coming in, and making a positive impact on the game. Rookie Chris Jones was signed three weeks ago, and it turns out that this was an important decision for the Patriots, as he saw extensive action this past week with Wilfork going down. Given the history of Bill Belichick, I am thinking that he will stay in-house for whatever he decides to do with this defensive tackle situation. I am willing to bet that he will stick with Kelly and Vellano as the starters, with Jones and possibly someone from the practice squad serving as a fourth tackle.
There is no doubt that this injury will affect the Patriots not only on the field, but off the field as well. Wilfork was one of the leaders of the locker room, and players that have the kind of leadership skills that Wilfork has, are always missed at the most inopportune times in the season.