The New England Patriots' 2011-2012 defense won't make anyone forget the units Bill Belichick has put together in the past — in fact, there are some who believe that the defense Belichick put on the field this season is somehow proof that he's losing his grip on NFL excellence … Super Bowl trip notwithstanding. While the Pats have been a sieve against the pass, and outside contain against the run has been a major issue all year, defensive lineman Vince Wilfork has been his usual stout self.
The six-foot-2, 325-pound veteran from Miami isn't just a hole-plugger, either -- he picked off passes this season against the Oakland Raiders, and another against the San Diego Chargers. On Monday, Belichick talked about Wilfork's hidden athleticism, and the benefits it brings to the team.
"Vince is a very good athlete, as we can see from all of those interception returns, all of his open-field running and those kinds of plays. I made a big mistake his rookie year when I made a bet with the team about a night off, or not giving them a night off. I put Vince back there to catch a punt. He has soft hands, and you can hear the ball hit his hands. He is a really good athlete. He has the ability to play on all three downs. Last year, we had some injuries, and I'd say he was forced into it a little bit because of our lack of depth on the defensive line."
It is this versatility, in addition to Wilfork's ability to stone running backs and pursue quarterbacks, that puts the coach in mind of some of the best linemen he's coached through his career. Add in Wilfork's 2.5 sacks in a postseason he seems determined to dominate, and you have someone ready to make an enormous impact in Super Bowl XLVI.
"This year, he takes a lot of pride about not coming off the field, which I love in a defensive lineman. I love that they want to be out there on every play. They are not looking to come out. Shaun Ellis is like that. All of those years with the Jets, and a lot of those going back to the Giants, Jim Burt and Leonard (Marshall) didn't want to come off the field. That's the way Vince's attitude is. He is in good condition. Out at practice today during the offensive period, he's running sprints back and forth across the field, working on his conditioning. There is a week to go in the season, and I think that's indicative of his competitiveness, his desire to be good and consistently be good week after week during the entire season."
Wilfork says that it's all about conditioning, no matter what he looks like. "You know what? Each year, I just want to keep getting better. I think conditioning is everything, being able to go. The more stress you can put on yourself in the off-season and training camp, I think it allows you to play at a high level once you get later in the season. That's one I did a real good job of, putting that stress on myself this off-season."
If there was one game this season in which Wilfork truly transcended his status as a simple "big body" it was the AFC Championship game against the Baltimore Ravens. Wilfork terrorized Joe Flacco all day, picked up a sack, and added two tackles for loss.
"You can talk about his appearance," Belichick said. "He doesn't have the classic appearance, [but] he is a good athlete. He is in good shape, and he works really hard. He can play a lot of plays, and he plays them well, too. I think those plays he made at the end of the Baltimore game last week on third and 3, when he made the stop on the trap play. Fourth-and-5, he got a hold of Flacco, and [Flacco] threw it away. Those were getting into the 60-play numbers late in the fourth quarter when we had to have it when the whole game was on the line, and he made two critical plays there."
No doubt, he's ready to make some more on Sunday. And the stress Wilfork put on himself in the offseason will once again transfer to enemy quarterbacks.