BOSTON (CBS) — Early Wednesday, whether spoken from Bill Belichick behind a Gillette Stadium podium or his counterpart Marvin Lewis on a conference call from Cincinnati, two large topics of conversation were a pair of very big defensive tackles.
One is a veteran leader by example and in voice, a five-time Pro Bowler and six-year co-captain. The other is seven years younger and in just his fourth season, already with two Pro Bowl selections to his name. And this weekend, if the New England Patriots are to beat the Bengals on the road, they’ll have to overcome the absence of the former and presence of the latter.
While New England’s defense will play without Vince Wilfork, who tore his right Achilles tendon last Sunday in Atlanta, Cincinnati’s will be led by Geno Atkins.
“We’re all going to have to pull that rope,” Belichick said of Patriots’ plans to offset the loss of the 325-plus-pound Wilfork, who’s missed only six games since joining the team in 2004. “It’s a big loss, but we’re just going to have to find a way to do it. That means everybody doing their job. Obviously somebody is going to have to replace him and whoever those people are, they’re’ going to have to answer the bell. But collectively as a team, we’re all going to have to pull together. There’s no one person that can replace Vince Wilfork.”
“He has been a good player, a very good player. He has been the center point of that group for a long time,” said Lewis, in his 11th season as Cincinnati’s head coach. “You always plan for the loss of a player, so they’re going to have the next guy step up and go, with the addition of Tommy Kelly that they had in the offseason.
“They have the young players in there also that played when Vince was out and have been rotating in throughout the season. But, he is obviously a good player. I’m sure they have guys that are excited to get their opportunity.”
Those guys include rookie free agent Joe Vellano, who played on the interior and end of the defensive line at the University of Maryland. In his pro debut at Buffalo, Vellano stuffed C.J. Spiller for a loss. More recently in Atlanta, he took down Matt Ryan for his first sack.
But as Belichick says, filling the gaps Wilfork regularly occupied won’t fall on Vellano alone. Nor do the Patriots figure to stick with the same look, as if they ever have. They often vary their front, using three or four down linemen, and are as resourceful as any team in the NFL. For example, late against the Falcons they moved Chandler Jones inside, with rookie Michael Buchanan rushing from the outside.
“There have been times when (Vince) hasn’t been on the field,” said Belichick, when asked if his expectations of the position change without Wilfork. “It isn’t like we haven’t seen him not on the field.
“We had to deal with that in the Atlanta game and we’ll deal with it going forward … some things I’m sure we’ll continue to do. There may be a couple things that we may need to modify when he’s not in there.”
Anticipating how the Bengals will try to exploit the absence of Wilfork, one wonders whether they’ll start Sunday with a run-heavy approach. After all, Cincy has what should be a very productive tandem in former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Eillis and Giovani Bernard.
But the 2-2 Bengals are ranked 22nd in rushing, averaging 83.8 yards a game and 3.4 yards per carry. While Bernard, a speedster in his first season out of North Carolina, averages 4.6 yards an attempt, Green-Ellis is netting only 2.7 a rush.
In Cleveland, Cincinnati seemed determined to run early; 13 of its first 28 offensive plays were on the ground. But after trailing 7-3 at halftime, the Bengals ran just seven more times, including three sneaks by quarterback Andy Dalton.
“We obviously have to be more effective running the football,” Lewis told Cincinnati media on Monday. “Commit to running the football, and stay with it, and make positive plays in the running game, and not get spooked away from it too often.”
Spooked is exactly how Cincy’s opponents might feel on offense as well. Keeping Atkins away from the quarterback is a frightening proposition.
“This guy has some power rushes where he just takes linemen back, those guards back and it just looks like they’re on roller skates. He just walks them, literally, right back into the quarterback,” says Belichick. “He’s very quick. He can get the edge and work up or up-and-under on the guards. Then when they try to set deep or take those quick moves away from him, he can turn those into power moves and collapse the pocket.”
In 2012, as a first-team All-Pro pick by the Associated Press, Atkins totaled 12.5 sacks. No other interior lineman had more than eight. This season he has 2.5, including a sack and a half at Cleveland.
Atkins, however, isn’t simply a designated pass rusher. Contrary to what was expected of him as a fourth-round draft choice in 2010, he’s become a complete defender.
“Actually, when we drafted Geno we thought he was one of the better interior rushers coming out of college. So we were excited to get him (as) a guy that we really targeted for that particular thing,” Lewis admitted. “His development over his first and second years, and his ability to play and be productive on first and second down has continued to grow.”
“He can ruin a game, there’s no question the guy can ruin a game by himself,” Belichick asserts, adding that Atkins would be a number-one pick if he were drafted today. “Every play, you can’t get away from him either. There aren’t many plays you can run where you can say, ‘We don’t really have to block the three-technique.’
“You have to block him and he’s a factor in the running game, he’s a factor in the passing game. You try to throw screens and stuff like that, he’s quick and fast, he’ll run those plays down. The guy is a really good player.”
Bob Socci is in his first season as the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.