FOXBOROUGH - The exhaustion must come after he leaves the field, after all the snaps are behind him for the week or the month or the season. Vince Wilfork is eight years into his professional football career, eight years of wear and tear on a massive, 325 pound-plus body.
Eight years in, and he’s playing more than ever.
“He’s just amazing,’’ fellow defensive lineman Kyle Love said. “I look at him and it’s the fourth quarter, he’s been out there the whole game and I can see the look in his eyes, but he’s still pushing, fighting.
“It inspires me to play hard because I was always a guy like, ‘I’m tired, I’m tired. I need a break, a rest.’ I see him, he’s not looking for somebody to come get him. He’s just trying to play harder and harder every snap, so it just makes me want to play harder and harder every snap.’’
When asked if he ever notices Wilfork slowing down, linebacker Jerod Mayo said, “To be honest with you, I really don’t. I’ve never seen Vince really tired on the field.’’
Wilfork, the Patriots’ Pro Bowl nose tackle, has been on the field for a whopping 978 snaps this season, 86.2 percent of the team’s 1,134 defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s a significant increase from the last three seasons, in which he played 66.3 percent in 2010 (777 of 1,172), 58.4 percent in 2009 (510 of 873), and 63.3 percent in 2008 (614 of 970).
Wilfork is second in total number of defensive snaps on the team, 13 behind Kyle Arrington.
“You really don’t see a defensive lineman playing as many snaps as he does, especially a man of his size,’’ Mayo said. “So it’s very impressive just to see the wind that he has. He knows things. He could tell me something that I can’t see. He’s just like having a quarterback out there.’’
In previous seasons, Wilfork was used more to stop the run, sometimes coming off the field in obvious passing situations. That hasn’t been the case this season, with Wilfork playing 609 snaps as a pass rusher, 365 in run defense, and 4 in pass coverage according to Pro Football Focus.
In 2010, Wilfork played 425 snaps against the pass, 348 against the run, 4 in pass coverage . In 2009, it was 265 and 244 (one pass coverage), and in 2008, it was 291 and 323.
Wilfork said he hasn’t noticed a difference between this year and last year in terms of how he’s responded physically.
“I never look at it,’’ Wilfork said. “I know I’ve played a lot this year, but I think everybody - even guys that have played 20 plays or 100 plays less than me -probably feel the same way as me. It’s just a long season.’’
With a lot of snaps. Wilfork did get the smallest of breaks in the second half of the season: He played 495 of 568 snaps in the first eight games (87.1 percent) and 483 of 566 (85.3) in the second half.
Ultimately, it was his reliability, his ability to avoid injury, and his performance that kept him on the field as much as he was. He held up, and so he played.
“Vince had a good year for us,’’ coach Bill Belichick said. “He played a lot of snaps last year compared to other years and he did again this year. He’s had a lot of different responsibilities - playing inside, playing outside - and his playing time in general has been high.’’
More has been asked of Wilfork, in part, because the acquisition of Albert Haynesworth - part of a seemingly intimidating interior duo with Wilfork - never panned out. That led to an increased burden on Wilfork, as he has helped bring along Love, who is in his second season.
“The biggest thing was just earning the trust,’’ Wilfork said. “You have to be able to trust the guy next to you on the field and myself being around here for eight years now, some of the calls I know like the back of my hand, so it’s easy for me to kind of look to the side of me and realize if someone’s out of position just to get them right.
“I didn’t have to do much this year. A lot of guys took it upon themselves to actually know what they were doing when their name was called. That’s been big for us this year, so it really hasn’t changed my play at all.’’
Not that he ever has shied away from telling his teammates what they should be doing if he sees an issue.
“I’m pretty comfortable playing anywhere on the line and pretty comfortable playing with anybody that [Belichick] lines out there with me,’’ Wilfork said. “And if I’m not comfortable I’ll let that person know what they need to work on. I think I’ve earned that right to let the guy next to me know I don’t appreciate him not knowing his plays.’’
That’s why fellow defensive players flock to him. They know he’ll be honest. And, more than that, they know he’ll be on the field, on almost every snap, backing that up.
As for what Wilfork planned to do over the bye weekend? “Rest. My biggest thing is rest.’’
Makes sense for a man who said, “I’m planning on playing for a long time. I’m not ready to stop this year, not yet.’’