FOXBOROUGH — Now that the reality of not having Vince Wilfork in uniform is settling in — the defensive tackle wasn’t at Wednesday’s practice, the team’s first on-field workout since losing him to an Achilles’ tendon tear during Sunday’s win at Atlanta — his defensive teammates are steeling themselves for what comes next.
The consensus: Everyone else will have to step up.
“Having Vince injured definitely is something that you don’t want to have, but we can’t really dwell on the fact that he’s not out there with us,” said defensive end Rob Ninkovich. “We just have to continue to push on and have other guys try and step up and do some of the things that he can do to the best of their abilities, and then other guys on the defense, like myself, have to step up and make more plays.”
Other players will be getting an opportunity to play more in Wilfork’s absence, but it’s the loss of the veteran captain that will take some time getting used to, because he’s rarely missed any games since being drafted in 2004.
“Vince was the rock in there, man, he’s a heck of a football player and a big loss for our team, but we pride ourselves, everybody on this roster, [on] being able to step up and be ready to go in the game whenever your name is called, so we have guys ready to step up and perform at a high level,” safety Steve Gregory said. “I don’t think you ever replace a guy like Vince Wilfork. You just need guys to step up, fill in, and do the best they can, try to understand what we’re trying to do as a defense, try to make plays and keep playing. We’ll have to rally around whoever’s in there.”
Initially, the snaps Wilfork received at defensive tackle (those have been more than 80 percent in recent seasons) will likely go to rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones. Those two combined to play 52 of the 66 defensive snaps after Wilfork left early in the first quarter. Vellano responded with his first career sack and Jones was credited with one tackle in his NFL debut.
The Patriots also could sign someone from the outside. They haven’t placed Wilfork on season-ending injured reserve, which will free up a roster spot.
“When we have anything to announce, we’ll announce it,” coach Bill Belichick said. “We’re all going to have to pull that [leadership] rope. There’s no Vince Wilfork, you just don’t replace Vince Wilfork. We’ll still have his presence around the team and in the locker room and those types of things, which he’s great at.
“On the field, we’ll miss him but whoever is out there, those other 11 guys that are out there, we’re all going to have to pull a little bit harder, including the coaching staff and all that. It’s a big loss, but we’re just going to have to find a way to do it. That means everybody doing their job.”
Wilfork might have had just 10 tackles in the first four games (same number as Vellano), but his importance is hardly measured in raw numbers. He takes on multiple blockers, freeing up unguarded teammates. Opponents have to game plan for him. He’s the defensive player the Patriots could least afford to play without. But now they must.
“That just tells me I need to get better,” said Jones, when asked if he’s bolstered by the fact the Patriots haven’t made any roster additions yet. “I need to keep practicing, getting better. You can’t really replace a player like Vince, but all we can do is keep practicing harder and getting better as a whole.”
Catching some flak
Perhaps Julian Edelman really has arrived, because there was Tom Brady, his quarterback, making fun of the receiver in front of the media Wednesday. Edelman is tied for the NFL lead with 34 receptions, and has become Brady’s most dependable receiver.
Before joining the Patriots, though, Edelman was a quarterback at Kent State. Which is what Brady was focusing on, after opening his remarks about Edelman with the requisite compliments one often directs at a teammate.
“To play college quarterback with such — I’d love to see those old tapes of him running around because he’s kind of a spaz. I don’t know if you guys know that,” Brady said. “I always say, ‘God, what were you like in the huddle as a quarterback? How could anyone look at you seriously?’ But I guess he did pretty good. He definitely can’t throw the ball, so he made the right switch to receiver at the right time. He’s been great.”
Ridley has knee injury
Stevan Ridley, the Patriots’ leading rusher with 174 yards, missed Wednesday’s practice with a knee injury. It’s the first time this season Ridley has been on the injury report. He rushed a team-high 11 times Sunday night against the Falcons, including his final carry, an 8-yard gain with less than three minutes remaining. He didn’t leave Sunday’s game with any apparent injury.
There were 15 Patriots who were limited in practice, including four newcomers to the injury report: receivers Kenbrell Thompkins (shoulder) and Aaron Dobson (neck), linebacker Dont’a Hightower (knee), and safety Tavon Wilson (hamstring). Dobson left the game in the third quarter after taking a hard hit to the helmet in the end zone that snapped his head back awkwardly.
The other 11 Patriots who were limited: tight ends Rob Gronkowski (back/forearm) and Zach Sudfeld (hamstring), receiver Danny Amendola (groin), running backs Brandon Bolden (knee) and Leon Washington (thigh), offensive linemen Will Svitek (knee) and Sebastian Vollmer (foot), defensive backs Kyle Arrington (groin), Marquice Cole (hamstring), and Nate Ebner (ankle), and linebacker Jerod Mayo (ankle).
The Bengals’ leading rusher is rookie Giovani Bernard, who has 147 yards on 32 carries. But it’s BenJarvus Green-Ellis who has the name recognition in these parts. The former Patriot has actually carried it 20 more times than Bernard, but has only 142 yards, a 2.7-yard average.
Green-Ellis has gone over 1,000 yards twice in his career: in 2010, when he was still with the Patriots, and last year, his first season in Cincinnati. He’s a Bengal now, but Green-Ellis said the four years spent with the Patriots left quite an impression.
“The things that I learned in New England not only helped me on the football field but also in life. How you approach your business and how you go about being a professional at whatever you’re doing, not just a professional football player but just a professional in life, doing things the right way,” he said. “The Patriot way has helped me tremendously throughout my career, not only throughout my career but coming into the league as a young man and also growing into a full-fledged adult now and having a family of my own.”
It’s been quite an interesting week for safety Kanorris Davis. The rookie was promoted from the practice squad Saturday, played on special teams during the 30-23 win over the Falcons, then was released Monday. He was re-signed Wednesday to the practice squad . . . The Patriots own a 14-8 lead in their series with the Bengals, but Cincinnati has scored more total points in those 22 games, 471-440. Seven of the eight Bengals’ wins were by 10 points or more . . . Belichick also has the upper hand against Cincinnati. He’s 14-3 against them as a head coach: 5-1 with the Patriots, and 8-2 when he was with Cleveland . . . Want to beat the Bengals? Force them to pass the ball. Under Marvin Lewis, the Bengals are 35-2 when a running back has at least 25 carries, and 36-7 when a back has rushed for at least 100 yards.Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.