NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
The New England Patriots survived a 30-23 thriller against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday night. But what will be felt longer than Week 4 win is the loss of All-Pro defensive tackle Vince Wilfork for the season.
In one play, the 31-year-old captain’s season came to an abrupt end with a torn Achilles tendon. In one play, the Patriots defense was forced to move on without its five-time Pro Bowler. And in one play, two undrafted rookie defensive tackles found themselves with big shoes to fill next to veteran Tommy Kelly.
The Patriots defensive front had no choice but to adapt.
The injury transpired on a 1st-and-goal during the opening quarter. As the 10th defensive snap of the game got underway, Wilfork extended his arms and brushed between Atlanta offensive linemen Peter Konz and Justin Blalock. The Miami Hurricane had his eyes set for the backfield, and he lunged his 6’2”, 325-pound frame ahead.
His right foot stayed behind.
After several trips, Wilfork fell on his stomach and laid there while Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan completed a one-yard pass to wide receiver Julio Jones.
In a moment of uncertainty, the 10-year pro pushed himself back upright. Surrounded by New England’s medical staff, he took a step, trying to shake the discomfort out of his right foot.
Wilfork couldn’t. In turn, he rested his hands on his knees and stared at the turf.
Wilfork hobbled slowly to the sideline under the aid of team trainers. From there, he was evaluated before leaving for the tunnel on a cart.
The core ingredients of the Patriots defense were reshuffled.
Without the second-longest tenured Patriot on the field, the defense relied on a mixture of four-man, three-man and hybrid defensive alignments. In doing so, head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia also relied on a mixture of personnel.
Enter Joe Vellano
Even with Wilfork out, the four-man line remained New England’s dominant formation against the Falcons. And the first man off the bench to assume Wilfork’s role was actually on the field at the time of injury:
Undrafted Maryland defensive tackle Joe Vellano.
After Wilfork left the game, the 6’2”, 300-pound rookie stepped in and played right defensive tackle for 25 snaps.
He stood in the one-technique on the right side for most of the contest. That said, it was not the only position he manned on Sept. 29.
For three snaps, Vellano hunkered in a three-point stance from left defensive tackle in New England’s four-man defensive line.
And while it was far from a trend, Vellano also kicked inside to play nose tackle – right over the head of the center – for two snaps. In this job, Vellano two-gapped the Falcons from a zero-technique.
In all, Vellano played 30 of his 33 snaps after Wilfork left the action. The majority of his plays came combating the run. And he finished with three tackles and his first NFL sack – which was netted from right defensive tackle.
Vellano is well-versed in both 3-4 and 4-3 defenses, as he worked within both during his days with the Terrapins. He’s not known for his size, strength or measurables, but he knows how to get to the football. Vellano is far from College Park now, but the All-American did tally 219 total tackles and 13.5 sacks over four years in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Enter Chris Jones
Vellano wasn’t the only undrafted defensive lineman to his teeth against Atlanta. Bowling Green product Chris Jones also filtered in in relief of Wilfork. The 6’2”, 306-pounder’s reps inside the Georgia Dome were the first of his professional career. He garnered them from three places along the line.
The 23-year-old Jones played 17 of his snaps at right defensive tackle in New England’s four-down linemen set. And many of which came next to Vellano.
When Kelly subbed in for Vellano, Jones transitioned to left defensive tackle for one snap.
Jones isn’t exactly in the mold of a 3-4 defensive end. Nevertheless, his short-area quickness and leverage triumphs suggest that he could carve a niche there.
Albeit only for a snap, the Patriots coaching staff used Jones off the edge as a five-tech defensive end in the 3-4.
Over the course of 19 plays, Jones was implemented in three different facets and registered one tackle. He’s not regarded as a run-stopper – he was in for just five run plays – but Jones was regarded as a disruptive 4-3 interior lineman leading up to the draft. In his final year with the Falcons, Jones finished third in the nation with 12.5 sacks.
Enter the ‘Speed’ Front
Vellano and Jones did their part to minimize the loss of Wilfork in their 49 defensive snaps following his injury, and Pro Football Focus graded the two greenhorns out at 0.8 and -1.7, respectively. But playing in lieu of a man who’s logged well over 80 percent of New England’s defensive snaps since 2011 is no easy task.
With that reality at the forefront, the Patriots looked to the 32-year-old Kelly for stability on the interior. The former Oakland Raider provided it. Post-Wilfork, Kelly squared up at left defensive tackle for 39 plays, right defensive tackle for seven plays, nose tackle for seven plays and left defensive end for one play.
Yet while Kelly played all over the defense and recorded three stops, his inclusion in New England’s “Speed” sub package helped keep the nucleus at equilibrium. A one-defensive tackle, three-defensive end dynamic that has been on the rise in recent weeks, the “Speed” front is built on a foundation of pass rush.
And it’s built on the belief that Chandler Jones and seventh-round rookie Michael Buchanan can create that pass rush by overloading one side of the line.
With Rob Ninkovich playing left defensive end, Kelly or Vellano playing between the right guard and center, and Jones and Buchanan bringing two defensive ends off the right, the Patriots’ light personnel was called upon heavily as the Falcons began to favor the pass.
And by the time the game clock read triple zeros, the Patriots had used the three-defensive end dynamic for 21 snaps.
For one game, the Patriots survived with Vellano, Jones and the “Speed” defense. However, will those elements be prevalent in the future? Will an addition from the practice squad or free agency deepen the pool?
Ultimately, no Patriot or scheme can absorb blocks or enforce the run like Vince Wilfork. His leadership and football abilities are irreplaceable. He is the most valuable piece on New England’s defensive side of the ball. But if the Patriots can find the right formula, No. 75 might not need to be replaced at all.