THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

On defense, Patriots are drawing upon a thin line

By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / December 17, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - Vince Wilfork was not about to mask his disappointment. So, as he hobbled off the field after injuring his left foot in the third quarter of last Sunday’s 20-10 victory over Carolina, the Patriots’ nose tackle removed his helmet and flung it to the ground in frustration.

It was not a good sight for the New England defense, which had gone into the game shorthanded, with rookie tackles Myron Pryor and Ron Brace and linebacker Adalius Thomas among the inactives.

The manpower shortage only grew worse when on the fifth play of the fourth quarter, defensive lineman Ty Warren pulled up with an injured right ankle.

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees had to cringe at the sight of Wilfork and Warren departing the game, leaving him to wonder: “Do we have enough defensive linemen?’’

“I think that any time I see anybody walk off the field, I don’t think we have enough of anything,’’ Pees said. “I’m just like every other coach in America. I wish we had more guys and more guys active and all that, but yes, certainly we don’t want to see anybody leave.

“It’s the same thing, though, when somebody goes down. Somebody else has got to step up and play and whoever that is - or if we have to change the scheme a little bit, that’s what we have to do. But I never want to see any of the starters, at any position, or really anybody on the entire defense, get nicked up or walk off the field that way. But, hey, that’s part of the game.’’

Warren echoed that sentiment yesterday when asked about Wilfork’s injury and his own. Wilfork was not in the locker room yesterday.

“It’s part of the game. It happens every game at every position at some point, so he’ll be OK,’’ Warren said of Wilfork. “That’s the name of the game.’’

Since the beginning of the season, Wilfork has had a reminder hanging from his locker of his objective this season. It reads, “Do My Job,’’ with the three exclamation points. Yesterday, though, Warren did not offer any predictions on whether Wilfork - or he, for that matter - would be healthy enough to do their jobs Sunday against the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

“I’m not saying like he’ll be all right for this game,’’ Warren said. “But his demeanor and the way he handles his business as a professional, he’ll be all right either way it goes. I’m not predicting that he’s going to be up for the game or not.’’

As for himself? “I’m feeling how I’m feeling,’’ Warren said with a chuckle.

No predictions? “I’m not making any predictions,’’ Warren said. “I’m handling my situation with treatment and rehabilitation, as we all do when we’re injured. I’m not trying to give anyone here the cold shoulder or anything like that, but I never give up any information that will help another team, so I’ll just leave it at that.’’

While quarterback Tom Brady (right shoulder/right finger/ribs) and receiver Randy Moss (not injury-related) were the two most notable absentees from yesterday’s outdoor practice, the status of Wilfork and Warren remained uncertain. With just three regular-season games left, it leaves little time for an injured starter to get healthy.

“That’s a good point,’’ said coach Bill Belichick. “It’s something that I think every team - most teams, anyway, if not every team - goes through at this time of year. You see a lot of players going on injured reserve and you see a lot of other players get signed to replace them, whether it’s off the practice squad, which is usually where they come from, or wherever else they get signed, and it’s definitely a concern.

“You want to have all your players out there. It’s a long season. It’s a lot of plays. It’s a lot of games. Ultimately, at this time of year, everybody’s got some players that are either on injured reserve or are inactive for certain games.’’

When Wilfork went down, Titus Adams, who was promoted last week from the practice squad to the 53-man roster, was inserted at nose tackle. Then when Warren went out, Mike Wright played end. Warren has started every game but one - against the Colts, when he was inactive - at left end, while Wilfork has started all 13 games, including the first two at left tackle in the 4-3 when Brace subbed at right tackle. .

Brace, however, has been inactive for seven of the last 10 games, including the last three, while Pryor has been inactive twice this season, in the opener against the Bills and last week’s game. Clearly, someone will have to step up if Warren or Wilfork - or both - are unable to play Sunday.

“You’ve got to fight through it,’’ said Belichick. “You’ve got to rely on your depth and a lot of times your ability for players to play more than one position, so you can get those things covered. That’s certainly a challenge. It’s a challenge all year, but at this time of year it looms a little bit larger just because of the volume of plays and the number of people that every team has either out or on IR.’’

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.

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