PATRIOTS: Concerns In The Middle

The Patriots have undergone a transformation in the middle of their defense with the losses of Tedy Bruschi, Ted Johnson and Keith Traylor. That adjustment is raising some questions about New England's ability to stop the run, something they must do in the run-oriented AFC East. The team is counting on 2nd-year Vince Wilfork to step things up, but what happens when he needs a breather? examines Wilfork's role as the anchor for this unit.

PHOTO: Patriots' defensive lineman Vince Wilfork speaks with reporters after practice at training camp in Foxboro, MA. (Patriots Insider Photo)

PATRIOTS: Concerns In The Middle
By Staff

The middle of the Patriots defense is sure to be tested early and often over the coming weeks. With inside linebackers who lack experience playing the position in a 3-4 front and a first-year starter at nose tackle, opponents will likely attack the heart of the defense until they are stopped consistently.

That puts pressure on Vince Wilfork, a 2004 first round pick who will man the nose tackles spot with no experienced depth behind him if he fails. Few, if any, expect the second-year pro to falter especially after the productive rookie year he had last year when he played in 16 games, but with only six starts, and notched 57 tackles and two sacks.

"Historically, a high majority of the players make their biggest jump from year one to year two and I think we can see a significant jump with Vince," coach Bill Belichick said. "And he had a good year last year too.

"One thing with Vince is that we've tried to condense things a little bit this year. I think he did a good job for us at defensive end but I think he's really a better inside player than an end (so) we've allocated most all of his time to that position whereas last year we were kind of splitting that up a little bit. So, I'm sure that's helped him too."

When the Pats released Keith Traylor this past spring, Wilfork was anointed the starter and he, along with Ty Warren and Richard Seymour, gives the Patriots three recent first round draft picks on the line. But Wilfork refuses to get caught up in that hype.

"That doesn't mean anything," he said. "Everyone in this league is good so I don't care if it's three first rounders, three free agents or three third rounders. Whoever can get the job done will play."

For the Patriots, that has to be Wilfork. The team not only released Traylor, but it cut third-year nose tackle Ethan Kelley at the start of training camp when he reportedly failed the team's conditioning test. Undersized Dan Klecko has some experience playing the position, and Warren has taken some reps inside this summer and also earned some injury-induced playing time there as a rookie in 2003.

Wilfork has embraced the role, but he understands that nothing matters besides his preparation and on-field performance. That's why he simply trying to build on his rookie season and leave the hype and expectations for others to worry about.

"Anytime you have a year under your belt, you have something to work with," Wilfork said. "That's my situation and I can't do anything but put my head down and move forward. That's what my job calls for and that's what I'm trying to do. As long as I have something to work on and film to look at and see myself last year, I know the things I need to work on and what I'm strong at.

"I'm more focused (this year) and I'm recognizing things a lot quicker this year. I'm not nearly where I need to be, but that's what training camp is for. It's a learning process and a teaching process. But I have a better understanding of how things are run than I did last year."

Now he is the central figure in stopping the run. He will be challenged early by a Patriots schedule that includes strong running teams in Carolina, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Atlanta and Denver.

After that stretch, Wilfork might be able to better gauge his improvement.

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