FOXBORO — Size matters.
That’s why the sight of big defensive linemen Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren both participating fully in practice for the third consecutive day on Friday is good news for the Patriots — the two anchors of the defensive line have missed the better part of the last month.
Wilfork, named to his second Pro Bowl late last month, has been sidelined the last three games because of a foot injury, while Warren has struggled with an ankle injury that’s forced him to miss two of the last three contests.
If the Patriots’ traditional defensive game plan holds true this week — trying to take away the opponents’ No. 1 offensive option — then the combination of Wilfork and Warren will play a sizable role in trying to clog up the middle in an attempt to stop Ray Rice and Willis McGahee. The tandem (mostly Rice) has sparked Baltimore’s ground game, which averages 137.5 yards per game on the ground, fifth-best in the league.
Rice is sixth in the NFL with 1,339 yards rushing and led all running backs with 78 catches, while McGahee posted a career-high 167 yards and three touchdowns last Sunday’s against Oakland.
“The backs, in general, are real good backs,” said Wilfork of Rice and McGahee. “They have two tough runners. We pride ourselves around here with stopping the run. Sometimes we did this year, sometimes we didn’t.”
Wilfork’s assessment of New England run defense is accurate. The Patriots were strictly middle-of-the-pack when it came to stopping the run this year — they are 13th in the league when it comes to rushing yards per game allowed (110.5) and total rushing yards allowed (1,768), and they yield 4.4 yards per carry, which puts them in the lower third of the league.
But Rice also knows the difference a healthy Wilfork could make when it comes to stuffing the Ravens running game.
“You cannot play that defense without recognizing that guy, Vince Wilfork,” Rice told reporters earlier this week. “When he wants to stop a play, he’ll stop a play.”
The last three weeks have been a particularly difficult stretch for Wilfork, who had started the previous 51 consecutive games — a streak that dated back to 2006 — before he was forced from the lineup last month because of injury.
“It’s been tough. I want to play football, but sometimes you have to take a seat and get healthy,” said Wilfork, who prides himself on his durability. “And that's where I was. I’m looking forward to this week. I feel a lot better. I’ve been in the stands and on the field, but I’d rather be out with the guys, sweating and getting bruised up.”
Without Wilfork and Warren for most of the last three weeks, the Patriots have yielded an average of 116 yards per game on the ground, including 144 rushing yards last week against the Texans.
But now, it appears they duo has returned, and appear to hold the key for New England’s defense in Sunday’s playoff opener at Gillette Stadium.
“It all starts over now. It all starts at 0-0,” Wilfork said. “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. Everybody’s 0-0 and everybody’s fighting for one goal and that’s to win and to be playing for the big dance.”
Here are four other things to keep an eye on Sunday at Gillette Stadium:
Who replaces Wes Welker? The Patriots enter the postseason without the NFL’s reception leader, lost to a knee injury in the regular-season finale last week against the Texans.
Setting aside his numbers (123 receptions, 1,348 receiving yards) Welker’s presence was immense — few receivers go over the middle as fearlessly as the Texas Tech product, while his knowledge of New England’s extremely complex passing game and his rapport with Tom Brady made him a key part of the Patriots’ offense. But without Welker, someone will have to step up and take the lead in the passing game, especially on the short-yardage and yards after catch receptions that keep the chains moving.
Our money is on the combination of Julian Edelman and Kevin Faulk. Edelman, a rookie out of Kent State, has enjoyed a stellar rookie season, coming away with 37 catches for 359 yards. Edelman will likely be asked to do many of the same things Welker did in the slot on Sunday.
“I really haven’t prepared any differently,” Edelman said Friday. “I’ve gone in every morning, ate breakfast, went in there, met with Scotty O [Scott O’Brien], did my hot tub, and prepared like it was any other week. Any time you overhype something, [you] just become jacked up in the head. So I came in, read the sign that says, ‘Do Your Job,’ and I’m trying to do my job.”
In addition, the Patriots should also lean heavily on veteran running back Kevin Faulk, one of the premier pass catchers on the team. Faulk, who became just the 26th running back in NFL history to rack up at least 400 career catches earlier this season, had three games this season where he finished with at least 50 receiving yards (all three games were New England victories) and was tied for third on the team with 37 receptions.
Will the Patriots challenge Baltimore’s young cornerbacks? While the Ravens’ defense still has many of the constants that made them so powerful throughout the last 10 years, it has a clear Achilles heel at cornerback. The young Baltimore corners have had major issues all seasons long — there have been injuries to Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb, forcing them to turn to Domonique Foxworth, Chris Carr and Frank Walker. Foxworth was matched up mostly on Randy Moss back in Week 4, and held him to three catches for 50 yards and a touchdown.
“I felt really good about how I played him last time,” Foxworth told Baltimore-area reporters this week. “I was a little upset about the play he scored on, though. It was like a tipped ball, but it ended up being a difference in the game. I wasn’t happy with it, but aside from that, it was good to have that experience against a guy like that.”
The one wild card in this matchup figures to be Ed Reed. The unbridled object of Bill Belichick’s affection, Reed is a game-changer at safety, someone who must be avoided at all costs. At 32, he’s not the same player he once was — he had trouble shaking off a groin injury late in the season — but still has a knack for coming up with key turnovers. If he can provide support for the young Baltimore corners, they could silence the New England passing game.
“Ed Reed, I don’t think there is a better safety in the NFL than Ed Reed,” the Patriots coach told the Baltimore media on a conference call earlier this week. “You look at the play he made against Indianapolis, that interception, to me, that’s got to be the play of the year in the secondary. That’s as good a play as any player can make back there, the way he set it up, and then reacted and played the ball. I mean, it was just a tremendous play.”
Protection. In 2009, the New England offensive line did as good as job as they have in recent memory keeping Tom Brady’s jersey clean. Brady was sacked 16 times all season (backup Brian Hoyer was sacked twice), the fewest sacks he’s ever taken in a single season over the course of his career. It’s a remarkably low number, considering the fact that because of injury, the Patriots were forced to use several different offensive linemen over the course of the 2009 season.
However, Brady took a season-high three sacks in the Week 4 win over Baltimore. The Ravens did one of the best jobs of the season when it came to getting after Brady — in addition to the sacks, Baltimore was able to get some good shots on Brady. (They drew two roughing-the-passer penalties that kept touchdown drives alive for the Patriots.)
Keeping a banged-up Brady out of harms way is a top priority every week, but even moreso against a ravenous Ravens pass rush that doesn’t buy the fact that Brady may be hurting.
“That’s the biggest set up ever,” said middle linebacker Ray Lewis. “You look at all the great ones, go back through the years, and every time you say they are hurt they come out and have the best games. So, forget all that, who’s hurt or who is not. If you have your uniform on, we understand that you’re playing football. You are playing just like who you are.
“So we don’t get caught up into that, ‘Oh, Tom has this, let’s try to do this, let’s try to do that,’ as soon as you try to do that and leave people man on man then he hurts you and then he’s so heroic because he’s done it with three broken ribs and a finger. Forget all of that. Bottom line is if he suits up, he’s ready to play, so let’s play.”
Expect the Patriots to utilize an extra tackle (Nick Kaczur? Mark LeVoir?) as a tight end from time to time in an effort to blunt the Baltimore rush. Also, Faulk should see some serious snaps on Sunday because he also remains the best running back when it comes to blitz pickup.
Playing it close. The Patriots and Ravens have lost several close games this season. Including New England’s six-point win over Baltimore on Oct. 4, the Ravens’ seven regular-season losses were by a combined 39 points, an average margin of defeat of 5.57 points a game. Meanwhile, the Patriots six losses were by a combined 40 points (including three losses by three points or less), an average of 6.7 points per game.
According to Belichick, those “last-possession” games can be learning experiences, especially when the playoffs roll around.
“You can talk about those, you can watch them on film, but we’ve been through them in game situations,” Belichick said. “That’s the ultimate learning experience. Not that they’re all the same, but you can learn from all of them. … They’re learning experiences. You’ve got to think you’re going to be in a close game at this time of year, whoever you play is a good football team and you’ve got to feel like there’s a good possibility it’s going to be a last-possession game.”
“I think they were aggravating when they were happening,” Lewis said of Baltimore's near-misses this year. “It’s not aggravating now, it’s more of a calmness, knowing that no matter what we go into, we have a real chance to win the football game and we have an opportunity to be in every game that’s close. We’ve played the Patriots. We’ve played the Colts. We’ve played the Vikings. Everyone was a close game, so for us understanding that we had to come back and correct the small things because it’s the small things that would make us win those close games.”