The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

October 1, 2013

Wilfork a load for Patriots to replace

Hector Longo
CNHI News Service

— If you're a New England Patriots fan, admit you peeked at Wikipedia to see what Ted Washington is up to these days.

Come on, even at age 45, and certainly upwards of 400 pounds, old “Mount Washington,” who retired in 2007 and is Hall of Fame eligible, could actually be considered a suitable replacement in these parts, now that  noseguard Vince Wilfork is out for the season with a torn Achilles heel.

Coach Bill Belichick didn’t go that far as he pondered his defense without Wilfork dominating the middle of the defensive line. But you know the coach and his staff are searching for answers to fill that 6-foot-2, 230-pound void.

Wilfork’s absence was hardly felt against Atlanta on Sunday night after he was carted off the field early in the game. That's because Atlanta used an aerial attack to try to catch up to the Patriots upon falling behind by three scores.

But that will change this week in Cincinnati, which features a grinding ground game to complement quarterback Andy Dalton's unsteady arm.

How can the Pats replace Wilfork?

1. “Next man up” is the mantra New England's lives by no matter who the injured party, evidenced by backup Matt Cassel replacing Tom Brady in the first game of the 2008 season when Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury. Cassels quarterbacked  the Patriots to 11 wins.

In Wilfork's case, if the Pats stay in a base 4-3 defense, Joe Vellano is the next man up. But the 6-foot-2, 300-pound rookie out of Maryland hardly doesn't present the imposing physical presence of Wilfork.

Vellano won’t be asked for much. Stuff the run. Disrupt the pass blocking. Jog off the field on third down, a lot like Wilfork did the first years with the Patriots.

2. Back to bread-and-butter. Remember that dinosaur of a defense known as the 3-4? Belichick does. And without Wilfork, could we see a shift back from a more stout 4-3 to a speedy and athletic 3-4?

Tommie Kelly, the veteran, shifts to noseguard. Neither Rob Ninkovich nor Chandler Jones is your traditional three-technique end in the 3-4, but at some point, you wonder if their quickness in the pass-rush wouldn’t pay more dividends than you’re giving up against the run.

The move would place linebackers Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower inside, There’s plenty of beef there, and both have shown the penchant to fill and tackle.

I like linebacker Jerod Mayo outside on the tight end side of the field, and that leaves the wild card in the formation. Highly-touted rookie Jamie Collins fits the physical stature of the prototypical rush outside linebacker in the 3-4, the Lawrence Taylor spot if you will.

Shifting at this point of the season won't be easy, but the Patriots defense was once built on its versatility. With all these premium picks exhausted defensively by Belichick in the past six years, why not now?

3. Go elsewhere. Casey Hampton is 36 and remains a free agent that the Steelers chose not to re-sign. The “Big Snack” has been buried by injuries and nagging problems in his latter years.

If there is a replacement nose guard out there, Belichick will run them through Gillette Stadium.

4. Go off the board. Remember the days of the “amoeba” and one or no defensive linemen in the game. Perhaps it is time for the Pats to believe in the athletes on the field and get a little crazy.

Tommy Kelly and Jones up front with five linebackers and a safety switching up their gap control and meandering about gives plenty for rival offenses to ponder.

“We have a lot of talented guys on our team. Vince got hurt in the first quarter yesterday and guys really stepped up and played well for us,” said Mayo. “We ended up getting the victory, which is always is a good thing. That’s our mentality, the next man up.”

There is no panic in the Patrios camp, but there is concern. Wilfork is a Hall of Fame talent, who is done for at least this year, potentially forever. That means the defensive scheme he anchored for so long has been altered for good. 

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Hector Longo covers the New England Patriots for The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass.