FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tommy Kelly knows he must stay out of the way of the other starting defensive tackle on the New England Patriots.
Since that’s 325-pound Vince Wilfork, it’s a pretty big task.
But the newcomer to the Patriots after nine years with the Oakland Raiders is getting used to his defensive neighbor in training camp.
“I’ve got to learn how Vince likes to rush. He’s got to learn how I like to rush,” Kelly said Monday. “You’ve always got to kind of figure out what you’ve got, who you’re playing next to, what they like to do, so you won’t get in their way.”
Both came into the NFL in 2004, Wilfork as a first-round draft choice from Miami and Kelly as a rookie free agent from Mississippi State. Since then, Wilfork has been to three Super Bowls in nine seasons, while Kelly hasn’t been on a team with a winning record.
They played beside each other Friday night in the Patriots’ 31-22 win over the Philadelphia Eagles in the exhibition opener for both teams.
“I’m very confident in my ability. I’m very confident in how I fit into this scheme,” Kelly said. “Any time you’re playing on a team like this that’s got an opportunity to do something, it’s a golden opportunity. It’s a better chance than you probably had in the past, but you’ve got to take advantage of it.”
Last season, Kyle Love started the first 11 regular-season games at defensive tackle next to Wilfork and Brandon Deaderick started the last five. Both are now with Tampa Bay, and Kelly has practiced with the first-team defense after signing as a free agent in April.
On Tuesday, the Patriots began three days of joint practices with the Buccaneers before the teams play Friday night at Gillette Stadium.
“You go against your own teammates for about a good week, they know all your moves, they know your tendencies,” Kelly said. “So you want to go against somebody else just to see, ‘OK, what I’ve been working on, will it work on somebody else?”‘
At 6-foot-6, 4 inches taller than Wilfork, Kelly presents a different challenge to offensive linemen.
“Both (are) very good, very effective players. They just have different playing styles,” Coach Bill Belichick said. “They look a little different but they present different matchup problems for the offensive line. Tommy’s been a really, really solid guy for us all the way through.
“Our style defense is a little bit different than what he was used to playing in Oakland. He’s had to make some adjustments but he’s made them. He’s working on them and I think developing a good rapport and communication with some of the other guys in the front seven.”
Kelly thinks his style is pretty simple.
“The only style I play is just stop the run and rush the passer,” he said. “My job is to knock my man back and get off the block, try to make some tackles. … (Wilfork) is trying to get penetration. I’m trying to get penetration. He’s just probably a little shorter than I am, but he makes up for it.”
Wilfork has been chosen for five Pro Bowls. Kelly hasn’t been in one. But both have been extremely durable.
Wilfork started all 16 games in five of his last six seasons. Kelly has started all 16 in each of his last five.
“It’s like boxing,” Kelly said. “Your toughness is pretty much one of the biggest things you need in this game and if you aren’t tough or durable it’s going to weed you out real quick on this level.”
The Patriots are hoping Kelly can improve a mediocre pass rush. He had a total of 14½ sacks in 2010 and 2011 but only one last year when the Raiders went 4-12.
Against the Eagles, he sacked Nick Foles, forcing a fumble that was recovered by defensive end Chandler Jones.
But he needs more than one game to judge just how good he, and his defensive teammates, can be at rushing the quarterback.
“It was a good start, but we’ve still got a long way to go,” Kelly said. “Just like the Eagles are knocking off rust, we’re knocking off rust. So, probably, it’ll take a couple of real games, 60 minutes going at it, to really know, but I think we’ve got a good chance to be good.”