EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 1, 2013

Pats' defense takes another inside pounding

How much can the defense endure as Patriots enter the stretch run?

On Pro Football
Hector Longo

---- — With each passing week, do you think Vince Wilfork wonders how his big, round self is going to look in one of those “Mustard/Gold” NFL Hall of Fame blazers?

A Patriots defense that seriously missed the big fella from 350-some-odd-pound big fella the moment his Achilles crumbled continues to be exposed, even in a 34-31 victory yesterday at Houston. Every week, Wilfork’s legend grows and looms just a little larger.

Teams, in this case the 14th-rated running Texans without All-Pro workhorse Arian Foster, continue to pummel the area that Big Vince once owned.

Coming off a 282-yard rushing effort by the Broncos, New England surrendered a healthy 4.6 yards a carry to Houston’s immortal duo of Ben Tate and Dennis Johnson.

With no Wilfork, and to a lesser extent Tommy Kelly or Jerod Mayo, there is no end in sight, leaving this football team to wonder if even though it’s fine now in the regular season to get punched in the rib cage so much that your lungs barely function, will there be an early playoff TKO because of it.

The Super Friends are back and healthy on offense. You don’t have to endure these crazy now-weekly comebacks to understand that Tom Brady is a much different player with Rob Gronkowski than without.

His 65 percent completions with him, compared to the 57 percent without him speaks enough on that.

But while Brady has fired footballs faster than a speeding bullet, saving victory week after week aside from one inexplicable non-call in Carolina, this defense continues to sink in a Wilfork-free-fall with no end to the bludgeoning in sight.

Belichick’s apologists told us last week that it was all in the game-plan to allow Denver to run wild and light the Pats up in a 24-0 first half last week. We had the Broncos right where we wanted them.

The fact is these were the 2-9 Texans, not a playoff team that cranked out 31 points and 385 yards of offense with the likes of Chris Jones and John Vellano having little to say about it.

Forget about January, do you have any confidence that this defense can get it done now, in December, against some middle-of-the-pack types when that one late semi-stop won’t be enough.

You’re looking to lock up a top two seed here in the AFC, but the Ravens or the Dolphins — teams hunting down that last wild card — will most likely be playing for their seasons.

Do you think for a second Ray Rice isn’t licking his chops when he sees the backbone of this crew is Vellano?

Look, I like this bunch. I think that guys like Devin McCourty and Chandler Jones have picked up the right character lessons. These guys don’t celebrate on first or second down. They kick it when they get off the field on third — like a Willie McGinest and Rodney Harrison would.

Last week, I applauded the work vs. Denver. I guess to a point, I ignored the rushing yards and watched the second-half heroics. I was fooled/enthralled by a hobbled Brandon Spikes, somehow nosing his way into tackles. He looked more hurt this week, and it showed. He was supposed to get better. I wonder if we can expect anyone to, at this point of the year.

You have to appreciate the effort, but at some point there’s that soft, exposed under-belly.