FOXBOROUGH — Officially, Vince Wilfork was credited with four tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss, one pass deflection, and one forced fumble in the Patriots’ undressing of the Texans last Monday night.
But his impact on that game seemed far larger than the statistics showed, and it began on the second official snap.
Houston running back Arian Foster, who came into the night averaging more than 120 yards in nationally televised games, had just picked up 15 yards, negating an illegal formation penalty called on his team moments earlier.
Foster got the ball again, and started to follow center Chris Myers but then cut back. Right guard Ben Jones had shoved Wilfork down in the backfield and was trying to hold him on the Gillette Stadium turf.
But Jones didn’t do a good enough job, and Wilfork reached out and grabbed Foster by the left shin, dropping him for a 1-yard loss.
Houston punted three plays later.
“He is a big guy,” Texans right tackle Ryan Harris said after his team fell to 11-2 on the season. “He is a smart player, a veteran, and a champion. He knows what it takes to win in this league.”
As with most defensive tackles, Wilfork’s statistics, taken at face value, are not impressive. He has been credited with 46 tackles, two sacks, six pass deflections, two forced fumbles, and four fumble recoveries.
His impact, however, cannot be measured in raw numbers, though the fact that he’s been on the field for 80 percent of New England’s defensive snaps gives an indication of his importance. Last season, Wilfork played an eye-opening 86 percent of the snaps, and was behind only cornerback Kyle Arrington in total snaps by the time the playoffs were over.
And if it seems like Wilfork has been everywhere this season, it’s a credit to the maturation of his young teammates that he’s been able to show off all of his talents.
“What’s happening to them is his production and his ability right now, I think it’s because of the outside presence of Chandler Jones and the three linebackers,” an AFC scout said. “[Dont’a] Hightower is starting to come on. I think the surrounding pieces have allowed him to be more, I won’t say more dominant, but you see more now the effect that he can have on the game and the production, the versatility, the things that he can do when there are better players around him.
“When you have to account for Chandler Jones’s speed rush and then him pushing the pocket and the quarterback trying to get away from the edge rusher, he has to step up and Wilfork is right there. He can get a sack or you have a zone scheme and they’re trying to attack the defensive end and Chandler Jones is able to stack and shed and the running back has to cut back and Wilfork is right there.”
The scout said that in recent years, when New England didn’t have players like Jones or Hightower or Brandon Spikes, offenses could double- or even triple-team Wilfork because he didn’t have many teammates who could hurt them.
The Patriots’ switch to a four-man defensive line also has aided Wilfork’s opportunities to make plays.
“As a 3-4, head-up nose guard, it’s so hard to be that stat guy,” the scout said. “It’s so hard to get a bunch of sacks or a bunch of TFLs [tackles for loss] as a 3-4 nose. In a 3-4 scheme you want to protect your linebackers and those are the guys that will be making all the plays.
“So having the 4-3 scheme, he’s able to play from a 3-technique to a shade; he’s got the versatility to play all along the line. [Bill] Belichick will move him to a 5-technique or a 3-tech or a nose . . . I think the four-man scheme has allowed him to show his versatility a little bit more, especially in the run game because he’s able to do a little bit of 2-gapping and penetrate gaps.”
Even as a leader and focal point of the defense, Wilfork, like so many of his teammates, will do whatever is asked of him if it furthers the Patriots’ cause.
“Even in three-man line there’s different things we can do that you see me move around a lot, from nose to end, just matchups that we like, try to keep the offense guessing, and in a four-man line it’s the same thing,” Wilfork said.
“We just try to keep it moving, and what’s best for the team, that’s what we’re going to always do. It may not be best for me, but when my name is called I’m ready, and ready to make plays if I have to. But if I don’t make plays, if I’m playing well and helping my teammates, if I’m freeing up some of my teammates, I’m happy, and if we win I’m happy.
“When we lose, that’s when it becomes a problem. Don’t want to lose, I’ll tell you that. Hate losing, so I’m going to do everything I can to prevent that.”
Moving Wilfork around also creates more opportunities for him to show off his athleticism, freakish for a man his size.
Wilfork’s return on his first career interception, when New England hosted San Diego last season, is just one example. He read Philip Rivers’s eyes, tipped the ball to himself, and rumbled down the Chargers’ sideline, stiff-arming at least one player along the way.
“He’s an extremely large human being,” said Patriots guard Donald Thomas, no small guy himself. “And for his size, he has great explosiveness. Once he gets going, it’s hard to stop him, unless you take a perfect fit and you know exactly what he’s going to do. If not, you see what he can do to people.”
Thomas played against Wilfork with the Dolphins in 2009, and does not have fond memories of the experience.
“It was rough,” Thomas said. “It was like, you see the film, but you don’t really get a chance to know how powerful he is until you get a chance to feel it. All you can do is just try to do what you’re taught and hold on.”
Wilfork’s dominant performance against Houston had some wondering if he might be a dark-horse candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.
According to the scout, in other years he likely would be.
But this year, with San Francisco’s Aldon Smith, who will be in Foxborough Sunday night, on pace to break the single-season sack record, the Texans’ J.J. Watt accumulating numbers like 16½ sacks and 15 pass deflections, Bears cornerback Charles Tillman with nine forced fumbles and two interceptions, both returned for touchdowns, not to mention the Broncos’ Von Miller, it’s a stacked field.
Asked if he believes this is his best season, Wilfork shrugged.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I never look at seasons and games, I don’t look at it like that. When I prepare, I prepare to win. If it comes with ‘best season,’ it’s not for me to say. I’ll leave it up to you guys to decide that.
“At the end of the day, I just want to help this ball club win. That’s what I’m all about, winning. You can have all the stats, but if you’re losing it don’t mean much. Winning is everything to me. At the end of the day, that’s what everybody gets paid for, to produce. To win. We do that, I’m a happy man.”