The Patriots will play the rest of this season without stalwart defensive lineman and cocaptain Vince Wilfork — a league source said early Monday morning that Wilfork suffered a torn right Achilles’ tendon in the first quarter of Sunday night’s game against the Falcons.
During a conference call around 11 a.m. Monday, coach Bill Belichick said he had no new information on Wilfork’s injury and that Wilfork was set to undergo more tests; however, by late afternoon, during his weekly appearance on WEEI, he acknowledged that the 10-year veteran had a significant injury.
“It doesn’t look too good for Vince,” Belichick said. “He’s got a pretty serious injury and it’s probably unlikely that he’ll be able to play again this year.”
Wilfork was injured on the 10th play of the opening series. While a 1-yard screen pass to Julio Jones was unfolding, Wilfork planted his right foot, then got turned around, nearly running into teammate Chandler Jones before falling to the turf.
He grabbed at his right ankle area as the Georgia Dome crowd began to boo him, mistakenly believing that Wilfork was faking an injury to slow down the Atlanta offense.
Once Wilfork limped to the Patriots’ bench, trainers immediately took off his right shoe and did some tests. Quarterback Tom Brady came over to check on the player he’s been teammates with longer than any other man on the roster.
A short time later, his right leg bare from the knee down, Wilfork was put on the back of a cart and driven to the locker room area. After the game, he was spotted wearing a walking boot.
A first-round draft pick in 2004, Wilfork has missed just six games in his career, the most recent in 2009, when he missed the final three games of the regular season with a foot injury. He also missed the final three games of the ’06 regular season with an ankle injury.
His presence on the field has become almost an afterthought, as has his high level of play – he’s a five-time Pro Bowler, including the last four years.
“He’s an outstanding player, we all know that,” Belichick said Monday morning. “He gives us great leadership and he’s a strong contributor on and off the field and in the locker room and everything else. We’ll just have to see how things come together for him and also what, obviously if he’s not there, it will mean [with] everybody having to pull a little bit more weight on their end.”
Wilfork has more than pulled his weight in recent years, which may have played a role in his injury. Listed at 6 feet 2 inches, 325 pounds — he’s probably closer to 350 — Wilfork has played in an incredibly high number of snaps for a nose tackle/defensive tackle.
Before his injury, he’d played in 177 of 219 defensive snaps, or 80.8 percent. Last year, it was 81.8 percent (1,041 snaps of 1,272, including postseason), and in 2011, that number was an amazing 86.6 percent (1,173 of 1,355 snaps).
That workload starts to take its toll, particularly for a player such as Wilfork, who has been absorbing double- and triple-teams for years. There have been comments that the 31-year-old hadn’t looked as good this season, which may have been that workload/age combination starting to show.
Regardless, the Patriots now have to cope without one of the leaders of their defense, and of their team.
“Obviously, Vince is huge asset for our team, not only on field, but off the field,” linebacker Jerod Mayo said. “He’s a great leader, demands double teams in the run game, and he also coordinates some of the rushes in the passing game as well. He’s a great asset.”
Mayo and Wilfork have become friends over their six years as teammates, film junkies and family men, supporting one another’s charitable endeavors.
To see the big man go down wasn’t easy for Mayo.
“Vince has been a staple for a long time,” he said. “He rarely goes out with injury. It was shocking, surprising, to see a friend go down like that.
“It took me off guard a bit – I’m used to having him in there with me.”
With Wilfork anchoring the middle, the Patriots have been one of the best run defenses in the league for several years. Now it will be on a combination of players — likely rookies Joe Vellano, Chris Jones, and practice squadder Marcus Fortson — to help pick up the slack in Wilfork’s absence.
It will be interesting to see what happens between the Patriots and Wilfork next year, the final year of the five-year contract he signed in 2010. Wilfork’s base salary is slated to be $7.5 million; with bonuses, his salary cap number is $11.6 million, which currently is second to Brady’s ’14 cap number.