BOSTON (CBS) – It’s hard to miss Vince Wilfork out on the field for the New England Patriots.
The All-Pro nose tackle is a force on the Patriots defensive line, although his stellar efforts don’t always show up in the box score.
Take Thursday night’s 49-19 trouncing of the New York Jets for example. Next to Wilfork’s name, all that is listed is three tackles. To the naked eye, that doesn’t seem like much of a showing.
But ask anyone on the Jets offense about Wilfork, and they’ll likely shudder with bad memories from Thursday night. Whether he was clogging the middle, handling double teams, or throwing offensive linemen around, Wilfork’s presence was felt Thursday night — stat sheet be damned.
“He’s really a staple of our defense and extremely an impact player for us where statistically, things might not show up or might not be apparent to the average play, but there are a whole bunch of other things going on behind the scenes that either free up another player or allow a player to play off him,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said of Wilfork. “He’s so disruptive in general; it really allows the other guys to play aggressive off of him, which is obviously beneficial to us.”
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For an example of that, look no further than the second quarter. The Patriots had just scored an 83-yard touchdown on a Tom Brady-Shane Vereen connection that put them up 14-0. The Jets offense took the field, but didn’t stay there for very long.
After Mark Sanchez butchered a handoff, he decided to run as hard as he could up the middle. But instead of finding a hole, he found the backside of right guard Brandon Moore, thanks to a shove by Vince Wilfork.
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Whether Wilfork knew Sanchez was going there or not, the play caused a fumble, and Steve Gregory scooped up the ball and scampered in for an easy 32-yard touchdown.
“Obviously Vince is doing a great job of just forcing the guard back and I think it actually surprised Sanchez how quickly he got popped back,” Patricia said of the play. “So just little things like that might not show up in the stats, but are critically important to our defense.”
The Patriots forced five more turnovers on Thursday, giving them nine takeaways in the last two games. For the year, the Patriots have 32 takeaways – tops in the NFL.
Patricia lauded the teams hard work in practice for their impressive turnover margin this season.
“I think we’ve been in good positions where the guys have made some plays and some opportunities to be able to get the turnovers and have an opportunity to knock a ball out or step in front of a pass or whatever it may be. But I just think it’s something obviously we try to work at really hard and put an emphasis point on and hopefully we can sustain that,” he said.
The Patriots’ +24 turnover differential is best in the league, but head coach Bill Belichick says turnovers don’t mean much unless they turn them into points — something the Patriots have done in bunches the last two weeks.
“I think last night is the ‘Exhibit A’ on how quickly the game can change. Turnovers are a huge part of the game and other than points, they’re probably statistically the highest correlation to winning,” said Belichick. “We had a lot of turnovers earlier in the year and we didn’t get enough point production out of those turnovers. A lot of times, we’d turn the ball over and end up leaving with not many points. So even though we had a turnover differential advantage, that didn’t really translate into a big point advantage with those turnovers. The past few weeks, that number has changed more in our favor where the turnovers have been converted into points and in a lot of cases, touchdowns.”
The Wilfork-Sanchez play led to the wheels falling completely off for the Jets on Thursday. Right after that touchdown, the New York coughed the ball up again on the ensuing kickoff, which the Patriots also returned for a touchdown. All of a sudden, a 14-0 game was 28-0 and turned into a Patriots blowout.
“We all saw how quickly that a very competitive game last night; that was a scoreless tie, a battle back and forth, then all the sudden it’s 35 points up there,” added Belichick. “But that’s what happens. A big play, a turnover, score, another turnover, another big play and when you get all those yards in one play, whether it’s on a big play or a turnover, then that’s what defines explosive plays. It certainly changes the whole dynamic of the game even though a 14-play, 80-yard drive that takes seven and half minutes, you get the same amount of points and all that, but it takes longer and doesn’t change the game as quickly obviously.”
“When it happens that fast, it really can swing the momentum in a hurry,” he said.
It certainly can. Just as the Jets.