Breaking Down Vince Wilfork's Impact on the New England Patriots Defense

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Breaking Down Vince Wilfork's Impact on the New England Patriots Defense
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

When an NFL player decides to call it a career, they are immortalized by the numbers they leave behind.

How many Super Bowls, Pro Bowls, sacks, interceptions, completions, rushing yards, receptions and touchdowns—all are used as measurements in determining one's legacy.

But for many players, those measurements are irrelevant. They do not justify success on the football field. And they most certainly do not justify how valuable a player can be to their respective football team.

Just look at New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork.

Since the University of Miami product was taken in 21st overall in the 2004 NFL draft, he has started 128 of 138 regular season games. Of the ten games he didn't start, he missed a total of just three.

He has served as a team captain since 2008. He has been voted to five Pro Bowls and he has been part of one Super Bowl victory.

In all, his resume is an impressive one. Yet when it comes to the most illustrious stats a defensive lineman can amass—tackles, sacks and forced fumbles—Wilfork often gets lost in the trenches.

Over nine seasons in Foxborough, Mass., the 31-year-old has collected 326 tackles, 16 sacks and five forced fumbles.

While those numbers stand on their own two legs, they are not particularly unique. Statistically speaking, the likes of Ndamukong Suh, Haloti Ngata, Tommy Kelly, Tommie Harris, Randy Starks, Geno Atkins, Corey Williams, Kyle Williams and Barry Cofield have all met or exceeded portions of Wilfork's production at defensive tackle since 2004.

And based on Wilfork's role and skill set, he probably couldn't care less.

No. 75 is an integral part of the Patriots defense, even if the stat sheet doesn't show it.


A Deceiving Athlete

It takes a rare physical ability to carry the 325 pounds—on a good day—the way the 6'2" Wilfork does on a bad day. At a glance, he may look like a plodder in the thick of the defense. Yet in actuality, he's arguably the most light-footed natural nose tackle in the game.

Change of direction is an underrated trait. Wilfork has it.

This surprising quickness helps the one-time high school running back and returner disengage from blocks, knife through running lanes, stunt blitz, and even drop back into coverage in zone blitz situations.

Bill Belichick and Scott Zolak analyzed Wilfork's interception versus the Oakland Raiders in 2011. (Video courtesy of Kallisphere)

Last season, then-Patriots offensive guard Donald Thomas gave The Boston Globe's Shalise Manza Young a brief scouting report on Wilfork. Thomas said that Wilfork is "an extremely large human being." But, the 305-pound Thomas added, "he has great explosiveness."

Mass plus speed equals force. Wilfork is a force.

 

A Space Eater Against the Run

Christopher B. Brown, Grantland.com contributor and author of The Essential Smart Football, once said that "a 1-gap player attacks gaps, a 2-gap player attacks people." 

Wilfork attacks people.

He often lines right over the center or guard, which usually allows his fellow D-linemen to shoot gaps as he absorbs blocks.

Against the Buffalo Bills in Week 4 of last season, his prowess as a two-gapper was on display.

Wilfork’s efforts were visible against the Bills, especially in terms of run support. (Image via NFL Game Rewind)

With edge-rusher Rob Ninkovich flanking his outside shoulder, Wilfork lined up over left guard Andy Levitre as a 3-4 end facing Buffalo's "11" personnel.

Wilfork engages the left guard, wielding his teammates to the sideline. (Image via NFL Game Rewind)

Following the snap, then-Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick pitched the ball to running back C.J. Spiller.

At the same time, Wilfork was getting the jump on Levitre. By maintaining both leverage and leg drive over Levitre, he freed up fellow Patriots defenders to make a play on the ball.

Wilfork forges through Levitre, zeroing in on the running lane. (Image via NFL Game Rewind)

Wilfork beat Levitre, closed in on Spiller's off-tackle run, and ate enough space for defensive end Rob Ninkovich, linebacker Jerod Mayo and cornerback Kyle Arrington to finish the play off.

Wilfork is not pictured. But he is a big reason why his teammates are. (Image via NFL Game Rewind)

No, he wasn't credited with any sort of statistic for his non-glamorous battle against Levitre. His type of hard work inside isn't often credited with any sort of statistic.

Wilfork isn't typically part of a play's end result. Nonetheless, he is typically part of a play's beginning.

 

A Disruptor Against the Pass

Wilfork is not a pass-rusher; he's a prerequisite for pass rush.

As an interior lineman, the former Hurricane's job is essentially to be a hurricane, and ultimately to collapse the pocket.

If he can do so effectively, the quarterback has no void to step into. As a result, he's either rushed into a throw that's not there, or he's kept in the sights of a speed rusher who nets a sack.

Even when Wilfork is at his best, another man is reaping the benefits.

Last season, during New England's Week 11 tilt against the Indianapolis Colts, that man was cornerback Aqib Talib.

Wilfork sees a runway to Andrew Luck. (Image via NFL Game Rewind)

With linebacker Brandon Spikes slicing inside right guard Mike McGlynn, Wilfork shoots through the B-gap past the inside shoulder of right tackle Winston Justice.

Wilfork circles around Justice for the home stretch. (Image via NFL Game Rewind)

Defensive ends Jermaine Cunningham and Trevor Scott close off the corners as Wilfork gets his frame in front of quarterback Andrew Luck. There's no pocket to shuffle into, and Luck fires the ball deep to avoid a sack.

Wilfork’s arms extend into Luck’s vision, hurrying his reads. (Image via NFL Game Rewind)

Jerod Mayo leaves wide receiver Reggie Wayne's hip pocket, as Devin McCourty and the rest of the Patriots secondary inherits the coverage. Luck's overthrows his target, and consequently, Talib is in the right place to capitalize with an interception.

Talib is the beneficiary of a rushed throw from Luck. (Image via NFL Game Rewind)

Talib returned the pick 59 yards for a score. It all stemmed from the penetration up front.

Sometimes there are coverage sacks, sometimes there are pressure interceptions. In this case, it was a pressure interception.

 

An Every-Down Player

At a press conference leading up to Super Bowl XLVI, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick told Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith that Wilfork "takes a lot of pride in not coming off the field."

Belichick added, "Out there at practice today during the offensive period he’s running sprints back and forth on the field, working on his conditioning, with a week to go in the season. I think that’s a sign of his dedication.”

Dedication may be Wilfork's greatest asset. He hardly ever leaves the defensive huddle, and not many other 325-pounders can say the same.

Actually, no other 325-pounder can say the same.

According to Football Outsiders, only four defensive tackles logged more snaps than Big Vince in 2012. The catch, however, is that those four weigh at least 20 pounds less than New England's first-team All-Pro. And, to take it a step further, no defensive lineman has played more snaps since 2011.

That's called earning your paycheck.

Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Seldom do you see Wilfork run off the field before fourth down.

Wilfork's relentless motor is not only a testament to his conditioning, but to his versatility.  

On any given series, Wilfork could feasibly line up as a zero-technique over the center, a one-technique shaded inside the guard, a three-technique shaded outside the guard, and a five-technique over the offensive tackle.

In layman's terms, he's a chameleon. Whether New England's front is in a 4-3, a 3-4 or a hybrid alignment, the coaching staff has one less personnel decision to worry about.

Entering his 10th NFL season, Wilfork is still the mainstay in the center of New England's defense. In fact, his workload has increased exponentially in each of the last four seasons.

The surrounding players may sub in and out based on the down and distance, Wilfork is the lone constant. He's not a run-stopper specialist. He's not a situational pass-rusher, either.

Wilfork's impact is felt every time he steps on the field.

And it doesn't take numbers to figure that out.

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