The Patriots defense has taken its lumps from time to time this season, as evidenced in its No. 32 ranking (that would be last in the NFL) in pass defense entering Sunday's game against the Cowboys.
But there were plenty of signs of progress against the talented if erratic Dallas offense -- the Cowboys were limited to three field goals and one Tony Romo-to-Jason Witten touchdown pass, and the Patriots held Dallas to a three-and-out on a crucial possession late in the fourth quarter.
It's those things, Vince Wilfork said, that should be considered evidence that the defense is improving.
"We're getting better, we’re definitely getting better,'' said Wilfork, who nearly had his third interception of the season when a Romo pass barely eluded his grasp. "Each week we go in and we improve and that’s one thing you want to do. You want to be able see improvement throughout each week and I think we’ve seen that. Going into the bye week, there are a couple of things that we can work on and continue to improve."
Wilfork said the numbers haven't always shown it, but the progress has been steady all season.
"Ever since week one, there’s been improvement and guys moving forward and guys starting to get familiar with everything, with plays and playing together and everything,'' Wilfork said. "We’re moving forward, we’re definitely moving forward. I’m happy with the guys’ effort. They come to work and never complain. They’re tough. Bill put us in tough situations in practice. Sometimes it goes well; sometimes it doesn’t. We practice a lot of situational football and being down by three at the end of the game with two minutes – two in a half minutes, whatever it was – was plenty of time for our offense because we practice that a bunch.''
Wilfork said that he alerted his fellow Patriots defenders to the possibility of a shovel pass right before Brandon Spikes flattened Cowboys running back Tashard Choice on third and 5 at the Patriots 5 after he received . . . yes, a shovel pass.
"In my stance, I kind of smelt some boo boo," Wilfork said. "Like I said, just being in that situation, that was one of the situations that we covered throughout the week. When they get down there in third down, there are some things that they do a little differently. We have to be alert for a lot of things. Like I said, I didn’t know it was going to be that, but I had a feeling it was going to be some type of run or whatever it may have been. So I sent the alert and I said hey, ‘look to the run here’ and Spikes was over and we just ate it up. And it feels good, because it’s hard to trust someone when they say something on the field because you’re always coached to do your job but they had that trust in me. They had faith in me that I was going to put them in the right situation."
Among the teammates Wilfork praised was defensive end Andre Carter, who had two sacks and spent a considerable amount of time in the Cowboys' backfield.
"He’s one of the guys, you watch him on film [and] he’ll tell you, he’d probably be leading the league in sacks with the ones he missed, the quarterback getting rid of the ball or stepping up,'' Wilfork said. "He has a great motor. He’s a very smart, smart player. And we always talk as a defense, especially as a defensive line, we might not be getting the sacks, but we’re getting the pressure, we’re getting to the quarterback. Sometimes he’s throwing it away, sometimes he scrambles getting rid of, sometimes he scrambling for some yards. One thing we say is that we just keep putting the pressure, just keep going, keep going. Because once you get the pass defense with the secondary and linebackers are on point with the defensive front, that’s when we’ll start seeing more sacks, more pressures and stuff like that. It works hand in hand. It definitely works hand in hand. We’re not going to take all the credit. Those guys have to cover in the back and I think they’ve been doing it. Each week, we’re improving as a defense and that’s what we need to do in this league."