Losing nose tackle Vince Wilfork is so big, there's only one way I can think to describe it: 6-foot-2, 325 pounds.
Truly a mountain of a man, but even those words ring hollow.
Schematic centerpiece? That's a better alternative.
As colleague Shalise Manza Young reported in the wee hours of the morning, Wilfork is done for the season due to an Achilles injury.
league source: Vince Wilfork has torn Achilles - almost certainly ends his season— shalise manza young (@shalisemyoung) September 30, 2013
There are plenty of questions that come out of such significant injury news, and while we'll have to wait until the games are played to get concrete answers, it's not too early to begin considering how this impacts the team in various ways.
Wilfork's ability to soak up blockers, no matter where he lined up, gave the Patriots a huge schematic edge.
"Obviously, Vince is a huge asset for our team, not only on the field but off the field," said linebacker Jerod Mayo. "He’s a great leader, he demands double teams in the run game and he also coordinates some of the rushes in the pass game, so [he's] a great asset for this defense."
Boston.com film review from the Patriots win over the Buccaneers showed that Wilfork drew a double-team on 25 of his 51 snaps, nearly half the time he was on the field in that game. Who knows when he first injured his foot, but that's an impressive performance even on two healthy feet.
Defensive end Chandler Jones most often lined up next to Wilfork, so Jones may get more attention from opposing offensive lines if Wilfork's replacement isn't drawing double-teams on a consistent basis.
This may also impact their run defense in sub packages. Wilfork helped them stop the run even when they went light up front, and while the Patriots still have a group of solid run-stuffing linebackers and a pair of stout edge defenders in Jones and Rob Ninkovich, they may not suffer too greatly in that respect.
Who's the next man up?
Of course, Tommy Kelly and Joe Vellano can expect a bigger role, but the Patriots will need to add depth at a position that has been among the thinnest since training camp.
As usual, some people seem to think the Patriots' best option is not currently on their roster. Suggestions include free-agent nose tackle Kyle Love, who was released from the Patriots in May, claimed and then released again on Sept. 1 by the Jaguars. If Love hadn't already seemingly burned that bridge with some disparaging comments about the Patriots, it might be worth considering.
Speaking of burning bridges, Richard Seymour's name has also been thrown around. Even if he hadn't made some dubious, well-known comments about playing for 31 other teams before he'd play for the Patriots, he still hasn't played football since November 4, 2012, and didn't even get a sniff as a free-agent outside of some negotiations with the Falcons.
What do you have a practice squad for, if not for this exact scenario? Second-year defensive tackle Marcus Forston is waiting in the wings in the Patriots proverbial farm system, and looked like he would make the roster over Vellano in training camp. Forston isn't quite a space-eater in the middle like Wilfork (who is, really?), but he could provide depth at a position that now features just three players.
The Patriots also have defensive tackle Armond Armstead on the NFI list, leaving him off the field until after Week 6. There has been no news on the progress of his recovery from a surgery to treat an infection.
"I think that’s what it’s all about, is preparation during the week and those guys prepare well and they came in to the game and did some good things," said Mayo. "Obviously we still have a lot of work to do and gelling together to get that chemistry but that comes with time. But last night was a good night for them."
Will the Patriots adjust their scheme?
The Patriots are known as one of the more schematically unique teams in the NFL, and Wilfork allowed them to do so much with their fronts. X's-and-O's expert Chris Brown wrote an interesting piece on Grantland dissecting Wilfork's value and role:
So what has Belichick done with his oddball assortment of defenders, anchored by Vince Wilfork? Did he choose 3-4 or 4-3? One-gap or 2-gap? Traditionally a 3-4 coach, Belichick ran this system even when almost every other NFL team was mimicking the 4-3 defenses popular in Dallas and Tampa. But Belichick now finds himself in a time when, by desire and necessity, he has largely moved to a four-man line approach. And yet, in typical Belichick fashion, he has chosen not to rely solely on the 4-3 or 3-4 or a 1-gap or 2-gap approach. Nor does he just alternate between 3-4 and 4-3 looks from play to play. Instead, Belichick has essentially combined both approaches in the same play. How?
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.
It's safe to say the Patriots don't have that kind of player on their defensive line at the moment, but there will still be flexibility in the front seven.
"The defense changes every week anyway, we’re a game plan defense," said Mayo, "different fronts, different schemes -- we change every week. We’ll just have to see what happens."
Most likely, the Patriots are still primarily a 4-3 defense, but they've already been very multiple in their looks this year. Jones has moved around the line, playing both end and tackle in a 4-3 and end in a 3-4. They run different fronts for their nickel packages, too, going with 3-3-5 and 4-2-5 at different times and against different opponents.
Those labels are just window dressing, but it could take some creativeness from head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to come up with an answer to a player that has given them the ability to be so versatile on defense.
With defensive ends like Jones and Ninkovich, the Patriots will probably still line up mainly in four-man fronts to maximize the effectiveness of those two. They may also begin to utilize more one-gapping techniques in the middle, without a truly dominant space-eating nose tackle like Wilfork.
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