EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — It started, where it always does for the Patriots, with the big man in the middle.
Vince Wilfork may never be the flashiest player. He doesn’t get a chance that often to deliver a highlight-reel hit (though when he delivers, look out). And he will never have gaudy numbers like sacks or tackles for loss.
But if the Patriots deliver a big performance defensively, you can be sure Wilfork had an impact, even if it’s hard to pick him out on the stat sheet.
That was definitely the case on Thursday night, when Wilfork was once again huge in the Patriots’ 49-19 blowout victory over the Jets at MetLife Stadium.
“If one of us is making a big play near the line of scrimmage, Vince is almost always a factor in it,” said linebacker Jerod Mayo.
In the second quarter with the Patriots leading, 7-0, the Jets faced third and 2 at the Patriots’ 32-yard line. The Jets ran Bilal Powell over right guard, with the left guard pulling.
The Jets were zone blocking on the right side of the line, which means right guard Brandon Moore and right tackle Austin Howard were going to double team Wilfork to start, and then Moore would head to the second level to pick off Mayo and open a hole.
The problem was Wilfork didn’t move, which meant Moore couldn’t block Mayo.
Boom. Tackle for a 1-yard gain.
The Jets went for it on fourth and 1, Wilfork split Moore and Howard again. Mayo came in unblocked to stop Shonn Greene.
Boom. No gain. Fumble. Patriots ball.
Two huge plays, and Wilfork isn’t found on the stat sheet for them.
“It’s just man on man,” said Wilfork, who officially had three tackles. “I think if I can occupy two [blockers], I know one of my ’backers is free. And I have some great ’backers. I put them up against any ’backers in the league at what we do. And I know I expect for them to make plays.”
Patriots scored on the next play to make it 14-0.
Two plays later, the Jets botched a handoff and quarterback Mark Sanchez tried to make something out of nothing.
But Wilfork had shoved Moore 2 yards into the backfield and into Sanchez.
Boom. Fumble and touchdown for the Patriots to take a 21-0 lead.
Again, Wilfork doesn’t get any official credit for the play.
“I’m just taught to fight pressure with pressure, so I just started fighting back and knocked him into Sanchez and it created a fumble,” Wilfork said.
The Jets had third and 6 on their next possession when Wilfork drew a double team from center Nick Mangold and Moore. That allowed Mayo to sneak in untouched.
Boom. A 9-yard sack. No official credit for Wilfork.
The big man did get credit when he tossed Howard like a rag doll to stop Powell for no gain.
And, finally, when the Jets had fourth and goal at the 1-yard line early in the third quarter, Wilfork busted through the gap Greene wanted to run through. That forced him back to the middle, where Brandon Spikes stopped Greene for no gain.
Again, no sign of Wilfork officially.
But try telling the Patriots that Wilfork’s contributions don’t have meaning.
“Very unselfish,” coach Bill Belichick said. “We play him in different positions, where we feel like he’s maybe the most needed, not necessarily where it’s going to feature him or give him a great opportunity to make plays. But a lot of times it is to eat up blockers or try to disrupt plays.
“He’s an explosive guy that’s got very good football instincts. He knows where the ball is, he knows what they’re trying to do. He really responded to a lot of the different challenges or positions that we put him in. He’s done a very unselfish job and been very productive.”
Wilfork’s standout play against the Jets comes on the back of dominating play against the Colts, where he helped force Andrew Luck’s poor throw that was returned for a touchdown, and defensed two passes on his own.
Wilfork has played “solid all year” — to use Belichick’s words, but he seems to have been a man on a mission the last two games.
Wilfork said it has to do with his natural tendency to turn it on in the second half of the season.
“I always get better later in the season,” he said in the hallway after his news conference. “I’ve always been like that, in high school, college, and in the pros. Once the second half starts picking up, my game always seems to get elevated in the second half.”
But Wilfork’s surge might also have to do with his pride.
ProFootballFocus.com published an article on Nov. 16 entitled, “What’s wrong with Vince Wilfork?” The film-study-based website said in its tabulations, his play has been off this season, perhaps because of his high snaps, or the Patriots not playing to Wilfork’s strengths.
He did see the story — Wilfork’s wife, Bianca, showed it to him — and acknowledged he glanced at it, but downplayed the significance.
“I work my tail off,” he said. “I do everything that I’ve been doing. You’re going to always have people saying some things. But I try not to pay attention to that.
“She told me about it. I think it irritated her more than it did me. I looked at it and I was like, ‘It is what it is.’ I’m going to keep doing my thing.”
That’s a very good thing for the Patriots. They need their big man in the middle of everything.