Injuries to key players are something the Patriots have dealt with at various times at a variety of positions in recent years. From the likes of Ty Law, Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi and Richard Seymour, Bill Belichick's team has proven time and again its ability to overcome adversity and plug guys in to continue to win.
That resilient depth could be challenged once again in the coming weeks, and at one of the most difficult spots to fill in any good 3-4 defense -- nose tackle. Vince Wilfork injured his lower right leg in the third quarter of last Sunday's 21-0 loss in Miami. He did not return to action and limped through the Dolphin Stadium visitor's locker room.
Not surprisingly, Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick offered little update on Wilfork's condition moving forward.
"It's the same as it always is," Belichick said a day later. "It's Monday after the game. Everybody is sore. Everybody is getting treatment. We'll see where we are (tomorrow). The crystal ball is a little cloudy today. I'll see if I can clear it up."
The 6-2, 325-pound Wilfork has had his most consistent and dominant season in 2006. The former first-round pick and third-year veteran ranks fourth on the team through 13 games with 79 tackles while adding a sack, four quarterback hits, a pass defensed and a fumble recovery.
But his importance in the Patriots two-gap scheme goes well beyond the numbers. Wilfork's unique combination of size and athleticism have made him one of the true strengths of a New England defense that's been stifling opposing runners for most of the season, giving the Patriots the league's third-best run defense.
Put simply, he's good and the better he plays, the easier life is for those lining up around and behind him.
While many fans and media types might not praise Wilfork as often as three-time All-Pro Richard Seymour or budding dominant force Ty Warren, those sandwiched around the former Miami star know his importance to the front as a whole.
"Anytime a guy goes down, (it's tough), especially our nose guard," Seymour said. "He's one of the rocks in the middle. He's one of the top faces of the defense. Obviously, we want him back this week."
Warren, New England's second-leading tackler with 90 stops through 13 games, places similar value on the guy lining up to his right each Sunday.
"He's the big foot who holds it down in the middle," he said. "Vince is Vince. There's only one Vince, and he's an integral part of this defense."
If Wilfork's injury does keep him out of the lineup -- something that could become clearer as the team prepares for Sunday's matchup in Foxborough with the Texans -- a huge hole will be left in the middle of the team's defense. Second-year former undrafted free agent Mike Wright and rookie sixth-round pick Le Kevin Smith are next on New England's nose tackle depth chart, but neither possesses Wilfork's combination of skills. Wright is more of an end, and it's possible Belichick and defensive coordinator Dean Pees could choose to move either Warren or Seymour down to the nose spot. The team could also choose to switch to a 4-3 front with more regularity, as it did last weekend in the loss in Miami. In such a front Seymour and Warren would likely play tackle, while Wright and Jarvis Green could man the end spots.
There are plenty of options for the front if Wilfork can't play, but they all have one drastic flaw -- they don't include the budding defensive line star. He's literally the centerpiece of the Patriots defensive front and one of the keys two making Belichick's preferred 3-4 front click. And those who play around him and garner most of the defensive praise know it.