He came into the National Football League after his junior year at the University of Miami with a ceiling so high it was obscured by the clouds, a top 10 talent who somehow fell all the way down the draft board to number 21.
Coming in to the 2004 season, the Patriots were the defending World Champions and had won 2 of the last 3 titles. Favored to win a third Lombardi Trophy, the team did just that, with their rookie Nose Tackle getting the start on the biggest stage for New England’s ferocious defense.
Now Vince Wilfork wants another title.
He didn’t call me at home or email me or invite me to dinner to discuss it. He doesn’t have to say a word – his actions speak for him. Setting a higher bar each season, Wilfork has made a statement in 2012 by not just winning his battles at the point of attack, but by physically dominating his opponents.
That’s opponents. Plural.
Wilfork isn’t just a wide body that eats up space, though he can do that as well as anyone. Wilfork forces the issue, he penetrates, bringing the action with his patented “Forklift” move – which isn’t so much a move as it is a displacement. He will lift an opponent off the ground and force him backwards which, as we saw against the Jets on Thanksgiving night, can cause utter chaos.
Demanding double teams no matter the opposition’s scheme, he is still disruptive and most times plunges the entire line of scrimmage into a state of bedlam. In his pass rush, he doesn’t just collapse the pocket, he makes it implode. In the running game, he penetrates and reestablishes the line of scrimmage 2 yards into the opposition’s backfield.
Which means his game is perfect for disrupting San Francisco’s read option offense.
The Forty Niners bring their 9-3-1 record across country to meet the Patriots in a prime time battle on Sunday night – a game that many are suggesting could be a Super Bowl preview. But before we go about anointing either of these teams the next dictator of the NFL Empire, let’s get this game over with.
Because a loss for San Francisco could be disastrous for their division title hopes, as the Seahawks are right on their heels with a cupcake schedule, so this game will test their intestinal fortitude.
And with Wilfork as the anchor, this Patriots’ defense will test their courage and their strength as well…Up on bedlam bridge somebody is waiting…
Known as perhaps the most physical team in the league, San Francisco may well meet their match in this game.
The defensive line is huge and physical and violent – a virtual Bedlam Bridge, leading to mountains of muscle – engaging in heavyweight battle on each snap. The ends are quick and very good at containment schemes – and the secondary can no longer be labeled as a weakness.
Aqib Talib has settled in at one corner while Alfonzo Dennard has asserted himself as the #2 corner. The safety positions have been stabilized by the presense of Devin McCourty. Mario Manningham is listed as doubtful for the Niners, so the receiving threats are left to greybeard Randy Moss and Tight End Vernon Davis as the primary targets.
On the ground, it’s Frank Gore that shoulders most of the load, and a load is just what he is.
The Read Option offense is a run-based offense similar to what we saw both times that the Patriots played the Denver Broncos last season – but it is important to remember that these are the San Francisco 49ers, a much more talented team than last year’s Broncos.
In the first meeting in October the Patriots went into Denver to face their Read Option offense and got absolutely torched by it, yielding 252 yards on just 31 carries, a ridiculous 8 yards per carry. Tim Tebow ran the thing to perfection, but the Patriots were the beneficiaries of recovering three Bronco’s fumbles and came away with a 41-23 win.
The biggest damage done by the Broncos was on the edges. New England was not able to set the edge consistently, and the Broncos ran wild. 122 of their 252 yards came on 6 plays off tackle, three to each side for an insane 20.3 yards per play. Part of the issue was the edge setting linebackers fell for the fake to the dive back, taking the outside containment with them inside.
It was so effective that Tebow was able to operate from the play action stretch and throw the ball downfield for an average of 18 yards per completion. If the Patriots give Kaepernick the same space to operate, New England will not be as fortunate.
In the second half the Patriots were able to adjust, setting the edge and forcing the runners inside, and the difference was remarkable. 25 carries for 130 yards and a more reasonable – but still bad – 5.2 yards per carry.
In this game, the Broncos got out to a quick lead and had plenty of momentum, but the fumbles were killers, halting three promising drives.
In the playoff game in January, the Patriots jumped out to a 14 point lead early. Tebow stayed patient and worked the offense down the field for a score, then the turnovers appeared again and New England scored at will, forcing Tebow to throw – and the results were predictable.
The Patriots were able to better set the edge in the playoff game, forcing the running game to the middle, right at Wilfork. Tebow was sacked five times as the edge rushers contained the pocket, stifling the already weak Broncos’ passing game and the Patriots defense held Denver to just 280 yards in total offense in a 45-10 blowout in the AFC divisional playoff game.
The difference in the two games was that in the playoff game the Patriots’ defenders stayed in their gaps and limited Tebow’s operating space, plus jumping out to a two-score lead put the Broncos in position to have to throw more than they wanted to, hence the five sacks.
So, the Patriots have some experience to fall back on. That being said, Tim Tebow is no Colin Kaepernick. The 49ers second year quarterback is mobile like Tebow, but much quicker, much faster and has an NFL quality arm and proven receivers.
Be that as it may, the goal for the Patriots defense is to stop the run, staying true to their gaps and keeping Kaepernick in the pocket where his speed, elusiveness and uncanny accuracy on downfield throws on the run are taken out of the equation – and that gives Wilfork the opportunity to collapse the pocket and reestablish the line of scrimmage, limiting Kaepernick’s option even more.
In other words, as head coach Bill Belichick reminds them daily, just do your job – make the 49ers cross Bedlam Bridge to get where they need to be – a place where there’s a man who makes no enemies, a body never breathless, no ambition ever hopeless…
Patriots fans hope that the bridge is as treacherous to cross for the 49ers as it was for the Texans last week, and the Dolphins before that, and the Jets before that…and it all starts up front with the bridgekeeper Wilfork.