ATLANTA — The Patriots defense that had been playing so well early in the season was dealt a blow the first time it took the field Sunday night against the Falcons.
Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork suffered an ankle injury on the Falcons’ initial drive, limping off the field. Trainers removed the tape, sock, and shoe on Wilfork’s right foot. Minutes later, he was carted away from the sideline, accompanied by team doctor Thomas Gill.
Wilfork was added to the team’s injury report this week, listed with a foot injury. The injury did not hamper his practice availability, though; he was listed under full participation on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, when he was listed as probable to play.
But on a first-down play from the Patriots’ 6, Wilfork appeared to go down despite little or no contact, raising speculation that he may have planted wrong and aggravated the foot injury. But the Patriots announced that it was Wilfork’s ankle, not foot, that had been injured. He didn’t return.
The Patriots aren’t real deep on the interior defensive line. Wilfork was replaced by Joe Vellano, an undrafted rookie from Maryland who has played well in spots over the first three games. He finished with a sack and three tackles in the Patriots’ 30-23 win. Tommy Kelly typically plays next to Wilfork and defensive end Chandler Jones has taken some snaps inside, as well.
Wilfork has been a rock for the defense, starting the past 55 games (playoffs and Sunday night’s game included). A first-round draft pick in 2004, he’s the second-longest-tenured player on the team. Only Tom Brady has been with the Patriots longer; the franchise quarterback, in fact, went over and checked in on Wilfork while the trainers were working on him.
Wilfork has been named to five Pro Bowls, and has been a defensive captain since 2008.
The Patriots kept Atlanta out of the end zone on the initial drive, holding the Falcons to a field goal. Through four games, the defense has given up just 50 points.
Patriots president Jonathan Kraft, in his customary pregame appearance on 98.5 the Sports Hub, addressed the reported disagreement between the team and Rob Gronkowski (and those close to him) over when the tight end might return.
“There is no dissension between Rob and the Patriots,” Kraft said. “He’ll come back when everything is right for him to come back.”
Multiple reports indicated last week that some members of the team feel that Gronkowski — who has practiced all season but has yet to play in a game as he recovers from five offseason surgical procedures on his forearm and back — is healthy enough to play. But those reports said that Gronkowski’s “inner circle” of family members and advisers don’t want to rush him back too soon.
Samuel sits out
There were not any surprises on the list of Patriots’ inactives for Sunday night’s game, though Atlanta did have one: Asante Samuel.
Samuel, the former Patriots and Eagles cornerback, popped up on the Falcons’ injury report on Friday with a thigh injury. A couple of hours before kickoff he was on the Georgia Dome field going through some warmup drills under the watchful eye of a team trainer.
Whatever Samuel did or felt during that workout, it wasn’t enough to show that he was ready to play.
That was probably good news for Brady; earlier in the week, Brady told Atlanta media that he’s probably thrown more interceptions to Samuel than anyone else in his career.
In addition to Danny Amendola (groin), Gronkowski (back/forearm), and Matthew Slater (wrist), whom the Patriots already had declared out, also inactive for New England was running back Leon Washington, linebacker Steve Beauharnais, defensive lineman Jake Bequette, and offensive lineman Chris Barker.
Washington has been limited with a thigh injury all month, though he was active against the Jets in Week 2.
On the positive side for the Patriots, injured right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (foot) was active, as was fellow lineman Will Svitek.
It isn’t often that a player does not practice on Thursday and is still active on Sunday, as happened with Vollmer this week. The fifth-year veteran started at right tackle.
Svitek, who has been slowed by a knee injury since the preseason, was active for the first time this season, against the team he started 10 games for in 2011.
Kyle Arrington, who suffered a groin injury in the second half of last week’s game against Tampa Bay, went through his own pregame workout, with head strength and conditioning coach Harold Nash. After the workout and then consulting with Nash and Gill, it was decided Arrington could play.
Arrington, who finished with six tackles, never has missed a game in his career with New England.
Kelly fitting in nicely
The Patriots essentially have just one new starter on defense this year from last season’s AFC title game.
Veteran lineman Kelly has so far proven to be a very good offseason signing for the Patriots, credited with 20 tackles, 1½ sacks, and 5 quarterback hits in the first three games.
Kelly’s presence had made things a little easier for Wilfork, who was happy to have the help.
“You can’t double everybody,” Wilfork said before the game. “He’s been making a lot of plays for us, and it’s just one of those things; he just knows. When I’m on the field and I have guys around me and I just feel and know they understand what’s going on, that’s the feeling I get with these guys around me.”
Kelly spent the first nine years of his career in Oakland, and has said nearly from the time he signed his two-year contract with the Patriots that the change in scenery has done him good.
“He fit right in, no issues. I’m happy. He’s playing good, people around me are playing good,” Wilfork said.
Last week, Kelly said he hasn’t been 3-0 since he was in high school, which makes him happy — “But I’ll be happier to be 4-0,” he quipped.
Dobson injures neck
In addition to Wilfork’s ankle injury, the Patriots lost receiver Aaron Dobson to a neck injury in the third quarter. Dobson was hit in the end zone while lunging low for a pass and was hit on top of the helmet, his head bending back. He did not return. Running back Brandon Bolden left briefly with a knee injury, but did return. Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard limped off in the final minute . . . It took a while, but the Patriots extended their streak of forcing at least one turnover to 31 consecutive games. Aqib Talib picked off a Matt Ryan pass with 9:35 left in the fourth quarter, the first turnover of the game . . . Brady’s 1-yard touchdown pass to Matthew Mulligan in the second quarter pushed his streak of games with at least one touchdown pass to 52. He’s two games behind the NFL record, held by Drew Brees . . . Team cocaptain Slater was on the field before the game in sweats, with a wrap/cast on his broken left wrist. It is rare for an injured player to go on road trips with the team, and yet another sign of the respect Slater has that he did travel . . . The Falcons, who were coming off a 27-24 loss at Miami in Week 3, lost consecutive games for the first time since 2009. Under coach Mike Smith (since 2008), the Falcons were 22-3 following losses, with wins in 14 straight games following defeats, until Sunday night.Shalise Manza Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung. Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com.