FOXBOROUGH — Vince Wilfork does not hide the fact that he relishes playing against teams that run the football.
“Especially a scheme-running team, because you get a little dirty,’’ the Patriots nose tackle said Thursday before the team departed for London for Sunday’s game against St. Louis.
“You don’t have to worry too much about cut blocks, zone runs, and reading,’’ Wilfork said of the Rams. “That’s a football team that wants to line up and just smack you in the mouth, because they feel they’re better than you. So you have to love those games, because you actually get challenged.
“They have no problem putting the ball in their running backs’ hands to get tough yards or go long distance. They don’t care, because they have so much faith in their offensive line and running backs to get those tough yards.’’
And the Patriots will face no tougher customer than Steven Jackson, St. Louis’s battering ram of a running back who has rushed 101 times for 380 yards this season.
Jackson is the franchise’s leading rusher with 9,473 yards, and he is 527 yards shy of becoming the 15th player in NFL history to rush for 10,000 with one team. He has seven straight 1,000-yard seasons, the longest active streak in the league.
“It’s impressive. It’s real impressive,’’ said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “He’s had 1,000 yards it seems like every year, or close to it. ut he dishes it out. I think he probably gives out about as much as he takes.
“It’s not like that with all backs. He’s got the quickness to be elusive on the second level and avoid guys and he’s also got the power to put his shoulder down and run through guys.’’
Almost as rare as a triple play in baseball was Rob Ninkovich’s walk-off triple play at the end of last Sunday’s 29-26 victory over the Jets. Ninkovich sacked Mark Sanchez, forced a fumble, and made the recovery to end the game.
“You don’t see too many of those at the end of the game,’’ Ninkovich said. “It felt great to get that. It was a great team effort with Jermaine [Cunningham] making a great play inside. I was just happy it worked out for us.’’
“He came through clutch for us,’’ marveled Wilfork. “He’s made some plays for us all season. He’s worked his butt off.”
The forced fumble was Ninkovich’s team-leading fourth of the season and fourth in as many games.
Kraft to be honored
Patriots owner Robert Kraft will be the inaugural recipient of the NFL Players Association Georgetown Lombardi Award, a joint honor given to a sports industry leader whose life and family have been touched by cancer.
Kraft will receive the award Nov. 3 in Washington during the 26th Lombardi Gala. His wife, Myra, died of ovarian cancer in 2011.
“Like many of us in the NFL community, Mr. Kraft has been personally affected by cancer,” said DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFLPA and honorary chair of the Lombardi Gala. “Despite his loss, Mr. Kraft has continued to be a leader on cancer awareness, research, and treatment.”
Coaching legend Vince Lombardi was treated for cancer at Georgetown University Hospital before losing his battle in 1970. The Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center is named in his memory.
Hightower is back
Rookie linebacker Dont’a Hightower returned to the lineup against the Jets after missing two games with a hamstring injury.
“It felt good,” said Hightower, who recorded seven tackles and one sack. “I definitely wanted to be out there a little bit earlier, but we were cautious of that, waited it out, got treatment.
“I feel a lot better, so no looking back now. I’m doing everything I can to prevent a hamstring pull or anything like that again, doing everything I can to stay on the field.’’
How do you go about avoiding a hamstring pull?
“Keep stretching, stay hydrated, small things, making sure you’re eating right, the weight thing,’’ Hightower said. “More or less just stretching more, I think that was my biggest problem, but I’m taking care of that now.’’
Mayo, who missed Wednesday’s practice because of an “illness/elbow’’ issue, returned for Thursday’s workout and was one of 12 players who practiced on a limited basis.
Tight end Aaron Hernandez (ankle), who was limited Wednesday, was one of six players who did not practice Thursday. The others who were absent were cornerback Ras-I Dowling (thigh), safety Steve Gregory (hip), running back Brandon Bolden (knee), linebacker Tracy White (foot), and defensive end Trevor Scott (hamstring), all of whom were out for the second day in a row.
The Rams had three players miss Thursday’s practice in London, including tackles Wayne Hunter (back) and Rodger Saffold (knee), and had four other players who were limited.
Attracting a crowd
Punter Zoltan Mesko, who was born in Romania, was the leader in the clubhouse for ticket requests, with 25 for friends and family. “It was quite an investment,’’ said Mesko, who was happy to foot the bill for the ducats given the travel expenses his entourage was willing to incur. “It’s the least I could do for them,’’ he said . . . Dan Connolly, who could not play through a lingering illness last Sunday, said he was fine and ready to make the trip to London, where he expected friends and relatives. “It’s funny, but I don’t even get that many [ticket requests] for games here [in Foxborough],’’ he said.Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer. Michael Vega can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBVEGA.