Monday, March 10, 2014
Rookie defensive tackles Joe Vellano, left, and Chris Jones will get the first crack at trying to fill in for the injured Vince Wilfork for the New England Patriots.
The Associated Press
That's the way the Patriots are looking at it. That's the way they have to look at it.
Wilfork, 31, a five-time Pro Bowl selection and just one of the two players left from the Patriots' last Super Bowl championship team in 2004 (along with Tom Brady), suffered a torn Achilles tendon in his right foot in Sunday night's 30-23 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.
While he hadn't yet been put on injured reserve by the Patriots on Wednesday, his season is over.
So who replaces the 6-foot-2, 325-pound man-mountain?
"I don't think you ever replace a guy like Vince Wilfork," said safety Steve Gregory. "You just need guys to step up, fill in and do the best they can, and try to understand what we're trying to do as a defense and try to make plays."
Wilfork is generally regarded as one of the NFL's best players at his position, a rare combination of size, speed and agility. An interior defensive tackle, he routinely draws double-team blocks on running plays, freeing another Patriots defender to make the tackle. On passing plays he collapses the pocket, forcing the quarterback to either hurry his throw or turn into another Patriots rusher.
He's even intercepted two passes.
That's why, as Gregory and Brady and Coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday, you don't replace Wilfork.
"We're all going to have to pull that rope," said Belichick, who selected Wilfork out of the University of Miami with the 21st pick of the 2004 draft. "There's no Vince Wilfork; you just don't replace Vince Wilfork. We'll still have his presence around the team and in the locker room and those types of things, which he's great at.
"On the field we'll miss him, but whoever is out there, those other 11 guys that are out there, we're all going to pull a little bit harder, including the coaching staff and all that. It's a big loss but we're just going to have to find a way to do it."
Joe Vellano, an undrafted rookie free agent from Maryland, and Chris Jones, a rookie from Bowling Green picked up on waivers Sept. 11 after Tampa Bay dropped him, will be the first two guys to step in. Veteran Tommy Kelly, who has already made a huge impact on the defense, will likely see his playing time increase.
But, Belichick stressed, this is about all 11 players on defense stepping up.
"Obviously somebody is going to have to replace him and whoever those people are, they're going to have to answer the bell," he said. "But collectively, as a team, we're all going to have to pull together. There's no one person that can replace Vince Wilfork."
Wilfork's stats weren't eye-popping this year: 10 tackles (six unassisted) and one quarterback hit. But his presence gave everybody confidence.
Vellano, who had a big sack of Matt Ryan after replacing Wilfork against the Falcons, spoke Wednesday about how much he has learned from Wilfork in the short time they've been teammates. "I couldn't have asked for a better mentor," he said.
It's that leadership that's going to be missed most. When things got difficult for the defense, Wilfork was always one of the first players to step up and do something. Who does that now?
No one. And everyone.
"Vince was the rock in there, man," said Gregory. "He's a heck of a football player and a big loss for our team. But we pride ourselves on everybody on this roster being able to step up and be ready to go in the game whenever your name is called. So we have guys ready to step up and play at a high level, and pick up where we left off."
Brady figures Wilfork -- who had surgery Tuesday (and his wife, Bianca, posted a photo of him giving a big thumbs-up on Twitter, meaning it went well) -- will probably still be around to give advice, to help in any way he can. That's the type of person he is.
But Brady said the Patriots can't dwell on his loss.
"His presence in the locker room, on the field, will be missed," said Brady. "At the same time the train keeps moving. No one feels sorry for the Patriots. We have to keep fighting on, just as Vince would want us to.
"He wants us to go out there and play well, and he'll encourage us. There are big shoes to fill, literally and figuratively, because he's such a unique talent and player and person. But we still have to go out there and try to win games."
Starting Sunday in Cincinnati.
Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: