How Will Vince Wilfork's Injury Change the Patriots Defensive Scheme?

James ChristensenContributor IOctober 2, 2013

Sep 12, 2013; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork (75) during the fourth quarter against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium.  The New England Patriots won 13-10. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes comparisons are weird.

As an example of this, let me tell you why losing Vince Wilfork—one of the best guys off the field in the league—to an injury and Aaron Hernandez—who certainly is not—to murder charges, may play out in a similar fashion for New England.

When the Patriots released Aaron Hernandez earlier this offseason due to his pending murder charges, speculation abounded on how coach Bill Belichick would replace him.

However—as fans and media pundits soon learned—you can’t replace a singular player like Hernandez; you have to adapt. Oliver Thomas of perhaps said it best.

Ultimately, no Patriot or scheme can absorb blocks or enforce the run like Vince Wilfork. His leadership and football abilities are irreplaceable. He is the most valuable piece on New England’s defensive side of the ball. But if the Patriots can find the right formula, No. 75 might not need to be replaced at all.

As free-agent defensive tackle names are thrown around and trade ideas are hatched, remember: Vince Wilfork can’t be replaced. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and the Patriots defense will need to adjust.

You can’t find players on the street who allow you to play “combo” fronts, as Chris Brown from Grantland described in his breakdown of Wilfork’s importance leading up to the Super Bowl in 2012.

The Patriots run a 3-4 to one side of the field and a 4-3 to the other, all on the same play. The key to all this is Wilfork. He lines up over the center and assumes his traditional spot of run-stuffing, blocker consuming, two-gapping war daddy. Belichick fills out the rest of the pieces based on the strengths and weaknesses of his other defenders.

If you can’t replace Wilfork’s strength and leverage, perhaps you move in the opposite direction.


Enter The Speed Front


You can think of the “speed” front as a nickel look for the defensive front. The main difference here in this picture from the Jets game in Week 2 is the lack of a second defensive tackle—replaced by defensive end Chandler Jones.

This isn't a new concept or one that is specific to New England—I’m willing to wager that every NFL team has a similar front lurking somewhere in its playbook.

However, it will be interesting to see if the Patriots see this look as a way to blunt the impact of losing Wilfork.


As you can see, Tommy Kelly has replaced Wilfork in the package following his injury against the Falcons.

The key to the look is being able to defend the run. If the front four aren't stout enough to hold the point of attack, opposing quarterbacks will check into runs and smash the ball all night long.

Kelly isn’t Wilfork, but the 32-year-old veteran has shown that he has enough left in the tank to hold his own inside.

What this front gives the Patriots is a dynamic speed-rusher on both edges—rookie Michael Buchanan and veteran stalwart Rob Ninkovich—with Jones able to use his length, speed and athleticism inside to disrupt the pocket.

There is no getting around it: The NFL is a pass-happy league—especially some of the better teams like New Orleans and Denver.

If it were the 1980s, this light front wouldn't stand a chance, but the run-first or even run-second teams are becoming more rare each and every season.With that in mind, I see the “speed” front getting a lot of work going forward.