Winning the battle up front

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Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork is the key to the team’s defense up front. (Stephen Savoia / AP photo)

The Patriots only have a few elder statesmen. Tom Brady (2000), Vince Wilfork (2004), Logan Mankins (2005), and Stephen Gostkowski (2006); in that order.

Jerod Mayo, Matthew Slater, Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell all came in 2008, followed by Sebastian Vollmer, Rob Ninkovich, Julian Edelman and Kyle Arrington in 2009.

That’s a good chunk of your core players who are respected on this team and league-wide. Take out one name, any name, and it’s an entirely different football team. And as you might suspect, each of those super veterans are at, or near, the top of their positions.

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Imagine the surprise then, when the numbers come out after film review and one player in particular, who has been one of the most consistent players in the league at his position and lauded by his peers (voted the 30th best player in the Top 100), is having a pretty tough stretch in his career.

What, exactly, is up with Wilfork?


Primarily a nose tackle and gap defender, Wilfork is often tasked with plugging holes rather than making big, splashy plays. And he often does so taking on two blockers. But over the past two weeks, he’s had poor results, getting pushed around in Week 2 against the Jets’ Vlad Ducasse, unable to hold his gap assignments, and then followed up with a moderately improved effort against the Bucs. The stats centric website Pro Football Focus graded Wilfork’s run defense against the Jets at -4.0, his worst since the site was started in 2008. Against the Bucs, he graded as a -0.7 against the run. The site ranks him as the 57th overall defensive tackle and 65th overall against the run.
By comparison, Tommy Kelly ranks 41st overall and 20th against the run.
Following the Bucs game, the Patriots listed Wilfork with a foot injury but he has been a full participant in each of the team’s practices.
And yet when the Falcons look at the Patriots, they point to Wilfork as the key to the Patriots’ defense, recognizing that whatever has worked against the big fella has been the reason teams like the Jets and the Buccaneers have been able to run the ball and get their offenses going.
“Vince Wilfork is playing at a very high level, playing a lot of snaps in the game,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said earlier in the week on a conference call with reporters, oblivious to those context bereft stats. Wilfork’s name was the first Smith mentioned.
“I’ve been very impressed with him. He can take over the inside; you’ve got to get four hands on him.”
Smith added that Wilfork is still one player you have to be conscious of where he lines up. He’s been tag-teaming with Kelly and undrafted rookie Joe Vellano. But Chandler Jones, whom Smith also holds in high regard, has also cycled inside on the defensive front. Each of the young guys appear to hold their own on review.
For the Patriots to continue to be successful on defense, and avoid the pitfalls suffered against the Jets (129 rushing yards), it’s clear Wilfork has to be successful up front. And, much like the Jets and Bucs, it appears the Falcons know that, too.

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What do you think?

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Read this, link that
There’s been a lot of hoopla about the offense, but these next three games will challenge the Patriots’ defense, writes Ben Volin.
Erik Frenz examines the matchup between Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones and Falcons tackle Lamar Holmes. As Frenz notes, pressure will be the key to disrupting the Falcons’ top-notch passing attack.
My Week 4 NFL picks.
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Tweet of the week
Patriots rookies are limited in what they can say to the press. It’s just company policy. So it was interesting to see Kenbrell Thompkins, an older rookie if there ever was one at 25, holding a Twitter chat with fans the other night. Of course, his answers were still limited. But I thought this was nice, considering that just a week prior his teammate, Aaron Dobson, had scored a touchdown on his first NFL catch.
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Input this
On “Brady takes responsibility for red zone woes,” Boston.com user Donnyxc writes:

“Just another example of Brady’s maturity. It never fails. Accepting the blame for his team. In reality, it’s not completely his fault. Thompkins and Dobson are just getting going in the NFL. He doesn’t have his four best receivers/tight ends from last season.”

With the possibility of Rob Gronkowski’s return on Sunday, the Patriots could be bolstered in this all-too crucial offensive category.
What’s to come
– At 4 p.m. Friday, we’ll know how the Patriots view Danny Amendola (groin) and Rob Gronkowski’s (back/forearm) progress. My guess is that they’ll be listed as questionable for Sunday’s game after being limited in practice all week.
– The Patriots travel to Atlanta on Saturday to face the Falcons Sunday in their first big matchup of the season. The game kicks off at 8:30 p.m. on NBC. We’ll have pregame, in-game, and postgame coverage on Boston.com.
– Alfonzo Dennard is due back in a Nebraska courtroom on Oct. 8 after admitting to violating his probation for a suspected DUI.
Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and Google+.