Can the New England Patriots' title hopes survive Vince Wilfork's injury?
I was worried for a while there during last week’s game against the Atlanta Falcons. The New England Patriots had opened up a 30-13 lead, and it almost looked as though we were in danger of having armchair prognosticators around the league take this team seriously. Then came the curiously timed replay malfunction and the ensuing Falcons comeback, with the Patriots managing to hang on for a 30-23 win. The Patriots lived to become collectively recognized as The Worst 4-0 Team In The League and now look ahead to a visit to Cincinnati to play the up-and-down Bengals.
Along the way, Vince Wilfork went down with a season-ending injury. I’m going to explicitly qualify everything else I’m about to write by emphasizing that this is a bad thing, and that the New England defense is worse off without Wilfork on the field. His position as most important defensive player on the roster has only even come into dispute due to Aqib Talib’s scintillating form. I know that I’m not exactly breaking new ground with that cutting edge analysis, but I don’t want to following argument to be misunderstood. That argument is that losing Wilfork is not as fatal to New England’s hopes as some have made it out to believe.
You win consistently in today’s NFL by passing the ball better than the other team. This was true when Wilfork came into the league, and it’s even more true now. It follows that from a defensive perspective, you win by being better at stopping the pass than the other team. What does this have to do with Vince Wilfork? To the extent that defensive tackles individually have high or minimal impact on opposing passing games, Wilfork’s impact has tended towards the minimal. His primary role on the field to eat up blockers in the run game and be difficult to move; he is among the all-time greats at this. Unfortunately, he doesn’t do too much more moving when it comes time to chase after quarterbacks. While sack stats can at times provide an incomplete and misleading evaluation of a player’s contribution to the pass rush, in the case of Vince Wilfork the fact that he is only averaging ~1.6 sacks per season is appropriate and telling.
Wilfork does have his uses in pass defense. For one, his ability to dominate the entire middle of the line on running plays allowed the coaching staff the flexibility to play more pass defense-oriented players around him. Additionally, teams would occasionally choose to double team him, leaving his fellow lineman with favorable one-on-one situations. And nobody in New England will soon forget the sight of Wilfork dropping back into coverage and grabbing a pair of interceptions in 2011. Still, given the choice between a player who can get to the QB on his own and a player who can intangibly help his teammates get to the QB, a pass rush is going to be better off with the former.
Vince Wilfork’s leadership off the field might not be replaceable, and it will probably take a rotating committee of bodies to try to replace his production on the field. But those replacements will be more proficient at putting pressure on the passer in this passing league. For that reason, the hope stays alive that by next week we’ll be talking about the Patriots as The Worst 5-0 Team In The League.