Maybe the most dominating aspect of New England's recent three-game winning streak, even more so than a newly aggressive pass rush that's led to 11 sacks over the three weeks, is the run defense. The Patriots have held the Jets, Bills and Bucs to a combined 85 yards in the last three weeks.
Thanks to that run-stuffing domination, a New England rush defense that ranked 27th in the NFL just more than a month earlier now ranks sixth in the league, allowing 99.4 yards per game. The improvement has been keyed by a lot of factors, including questionable opposition, the return to the lineup of All-Pro defensive end Richard Seymour and an explosion of plays by the linebackers.
But front and center in the improvement is second-year nose tackle Vince Wilfork. After starting just six games a year ago as a rookie, the 2004 first-round draft pick was handed the full-time gig in 2005. The former Miami star freely admits that in the early going he was struggling with his technique, trying to do too much for a unit that was searching for consistency.
So what has changed now for the point man in New England's defensive attack?
"Technique," Wilfork answered. "The early part of the season I was slacking on that end. It got to the point after the bye week (in Week 7) where (the coaches) were like, 'Look, this is what's going on and this is what we have to fix.' And I fixed it. And it's been working. I think I was trying to do too much at first, trying to take matters into my own hands at first, but now it's not the issue. I have faith in my teammates. So we have to keep that faith."
That faith in guys like inside linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel as well as fellow defensive linemen Ty Warren and Seymour and the rest of the unit, has led to plays. Those plays have led to wins. That's led to sustained success and positive postseason hopes for the first time this year.
"As you can see these past few weeks, we have been on the same page," said Wilfork, who is second on the New England defense with 87 tackles. "So we are trusting each other and, most importantly, we are having fun out there. That's one thing that was missing the early part of the season - we weren't having fun. We are at our best when we are out there taking care of business and having fun. So we have to keep that up."
If they can keep dominating through the final two weeks of the regular season that fun could keep up in the postseason, although the tests will become greater. New England has allowed a total of 10 points in the last three games, a three-game franchise record. The players all know that type of success starts with stopping the run and making an opponent one-dimensional. And to some degree that starts with Wilfork. Lately it has ended there, too, for what is quickly becoming the hottest team in football.
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