Commentary

No-quit mindset drives Pats' D-line

Despite injuries, setbacks and roster shuffles, Wilfork-led unit stands strong

Updated: December 22, 2010, 5:20 PM ET
By Steven Krasner | Special to ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots lineman Vince Wilfork isn't going to run a sub-four-minute mile. Nor is he likely to finish first in a Boston Marathon.

But Wilfork, at a massive 6-foot-2, 325 pounds, has been showing endurance that belies his size. Last Sunday night, for instance, the Patriots' defense was on the field for a whopping 84 plays, and Wilfork was in the trenches for an amazing 75 of those plays.

And the reason Wilfork was on the field for so many plays not only speaks to his versatility and conditioning, but also the fact that the Patriots' defensive line has been wracked by injuries to key personnel, forcing coach Bill Belichick to ask Wilfork to play that many snaps.

Mike Wright, a six-year veteran, has missed the last five games because of a concussion. Myron Pryor, in his second year, has been out for five games because of back problems. Second-year defensive lineman Ron Brace, meanwhile, missed the Green Bay game because of a concussion.

[+] EnlargeGerard Warren
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIVeteran Gerard Warren won praise from coach Bill Belichick for his work ethic and versatility. "He's very tough, he's professional, willing to work every day. He's banged up but he stays out there. He's dependable," said Belichick.

All three were being counted on to play important roles on the defensive line. The timetable for their respective returns isn't certain, though Brace was on the field for practice Wednesday.

So in the meantime, the Patriots are having to adjust. Players have moved up the depth chart, trying to fill in capably for the injured players. The defensive scheme has been altered at times, with New England switching from its 3-4 base defense to more of a 4-3, with an outside linebacker moving up to play defensive end. Players have been asked to move around on the line, including Wilfork, who has played nose tackle, tackle and end while also staying on the field as a third-down pass-rusher.

Combine the injuries on the defensive line with the fact the Patriots feature the youngest defense in the league and you have a recipe for disaster.

That, though, hasn't happened in New England, with the Patriots boasting a 12-2 record heading into Sunday's game at Buffalo, tying them with Atlanta for the best record in the NFL. New England has won six games in a row.

Somehow, while the defense has given up chunks of yardage at times, it has been able to make late-game stops necessary to keep the winning streak going. And one reason for that, aside from having quality depth on the roster, is a mindset that allows the Pats to thrive when there are all sorts of reasons they could find themselves in a downward spiral defensively because of the injuries up front.

That attitude comes from Belichick and is parroted by his players.

"There are times you have to move players around," said Belichick at his press briefing Wednesday. "Hey, every team has to go through that. That's football. That's the NFL. You take the players you have and do the best you can to prepare them. Sometimes guys have to play in different positions."

Mayo We always talk 'team' in New England. When one guy goes down, the next guy has to step up and make plays. That's what we've been able to do.

-- Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo

So the Pats have done a little tinkering. They have moved Wilfork around more than usual, they have asked Gerard Warren to play a few more snaps and rookie Kyle Love has been thrust into the action more often than might have been expected.

"If guys have to play more, they have to play more," said Belichick with a shrug.

Wilfork, one of the Pats' captains, offered a similar sentiment.

"People are banged up around the league, not just here. You can't feel sorry for yourselves. You have to be professional, take good care of your bodies and find a way to win on Sunday," he said.

Finding a way to win, regardless of who's on the field, is a trademark of the Patriots.

"We always talk 'team' in New England. When one guy goes down, the next guy has to step up and make plays. That's what we've been able to do," said linebacker Jerod Mayo, a leader on defense even though this is only his third season.

One of those guys is Warren. The 6-4, 325-pounder is in his 10th season but his first with the Patriots after stops in Cleveland, Denver and Oakland. His experience, work ethic and versatility have been a boon to the Pats.

"He's able to play on both ends, play on both guards and he sees things," said Belichick, praising Warren for quickly recognizing and chasing down a screen play against the Packers.

"He's very tough, he's professional, willing to work every day. He's banged up but he stays out there. He's dependable," said Belichick.

Having veterans set the tone is important, especially to a young defense, said Wilfork.

"For me to play different positions shows the younger guys you have to commit to what you're doing," said Wilfork. "Whether I'm playing defensive end or nose tackle or tackle, I don't get a [pass] if I make a bad play or don't make a tackle. We hold each other accountable. The young guys see that."

They also see what's expected of them not only on game day but also, more importantly, during the week of practice as they prepare for the next game.

"[Regardless of the changes] you just have to take the mindset that you go out there and do your job," said Mayo. "You go through training camp with the same guys, but lately we've been shuffling guys in we're not familiar with, but that's why you work hard in practice."

So New England's defense, notably the defensive line, will persevere, say the Pats. It's partly a question of mind over matter, especially late in games.

"We bent a little in [last Sunday's] game [a 31-27 win], but when it came to crunch time we came up with the big plays," said Mayo. "That might be mental toughness. We've talked about that all year."

No matter who's on the field.

Steven Krasner is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.

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