If Sunday's loss is any indication, the Patriots are already starting to feeling the effects of the absence of their physically and schematically biggest player.
Make no mistake—the Patriots defense performed as well as anyone could have hoped given the circumstance, and it gave up just 13 points on the day.
It got some pressure on quarterback Andy Dalton, but it seemed no matter what the Patriots tried, the Bengals found a way to run the ball at will straight up the middle.
As a team, Cincinnati racked up 162 rushing yards, the most allowed by New England's defense all season, but it took 39 carries to get there. Of those 162 yards, 90 came on 21 runs between the tackles, according to film study.
Defensive tackles Joe Vellano (59) and Chris Jones (36) both played their highest snap totals of the season thus far. Part of that may have had to do with Tommy Kelly's knee injury in the fourth quarter, but either way, both men figure to be a major part of the Patriots' defensive line rotation from here on out.
Jones, specifically, played well in recording 1.5 sacks and creating some key pressure on Dalton's interception.
Between Jones, Vellano and Kelly, the Patriots defensive tackles created pressure on seven passing downs, resulting in 2.5 of Dalton's four sacks. We haven't seen the Patriots get this much pressure up the middle from their defensive tackles in a long time.
As a unit, the Patriots defense got pressure on Dalton 13 of his 33 dropbacks, with four of those pressures resulting in sacks.
They didn't miss a beat when it came to rushing the passer. The problem with smaller defensive tackles like Vellano (6'2", 300 pounds) and Jones (6'2", 306 pounds) is that they can be moved off the ball in the running game. Vellano and Jones both graded out negatively for the game, according to stats website Pro Football Focus (subscription required), with the majority of their struggles being felt in run defense.
The combination of center Kyle Cook and guards Kevin Zeitler and Clint Boling gave the Patriots all they could handle through the middle.
"We ran the ball a lot, we were physical with them. We were built to be that way," Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth said, via Bengals.com. "You can look at the skill positions and we have some good skill players, but the truth is, up front, our O-line is still a skill as well. We've got a lot of guys that can be physical and like to be that way."
That physicality started right from the very first snap, with Vellano and Kelly getting knocked off the ball as Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis scampered his way up the gut for a 13-yard gain.
Zeitler cleared the hole up the middle with a great block on Vellano. If Vellano had squared up on Zeitler, instead of turning to the inside and letting the guard pin him that direction, he might have had a chance to maintain his gap.
Linebacker Brandon Spikes overpursued the play in the backfield, and Green-Ellis used a rare juke to break past the line of scrimmage.
Without Wilfork, it was no surprise that Spikes saw his heaviest work load of the season by far (59 of 71 defensive snaps; his previous high for 2013 was 37 snaps). Spikes stepped up, shooting gaps in the line and put forth a valiant effort with seven tackles and five assists; six of those tackles were stuffed runs.
He made a heck of a play to bring down Green-Ellis for a three-yard loss on 2nd-and-2 in the second quarter.
The Bengals came out with their 12 personnel grouping (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) with both tight ends lined up on the right side. They wanted to run a zone stretch to the right side, and with the center blocking to the right, the Bengals had a five-on-four numbers advantage to the play side.
Spikes properly diagnosed the play, shooting straight through the A-gap on his way to the ball-carrier.
This is where Spikes' instincts against the run become a tremendous asset. He played 36 snaps in run defense, another six crashing the line on a passing play and was in coverage on 17 plays. Spikes is at his best when coming downhill, and the Patriots are compelled to use him in that role without Wilfork in the lineup.
Spikes' role is magnified now, but at least it's playing to his strength. We could hardly say the same for Dane Fletcher, who was asked to line up at defensive tackle on a goal-line play.
We will continue to see the Patriots make do with a patchwork unit up front, and the prognosis for Kelly's knee will give us a better idea of what to expect—and who to expect—from the Patriots defense in the coming weeks.
If Kelly has to miss time, it would make sense to sign either A.J. Francis or Marcus Forston, two defensive tackles currently on the practice squad. They showed next-to-no interest in making a move at defensive tackle in the free-agent market when Wilfork went down.
Their lack of depth was exposed by the Kelly injury, as the Patriots had carried just three defensive tackles into the game.
It's clear that while the Patriots can account for some of what Wilfork brought to the table, replacing him fully remains a work in progress.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.
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