|Wilfork is a nose tackle with a head for the game|
|Written by Administrator|
|Thursday, 24 August 2006 19:00|
New England's defensive lineman finds that developing his mental toughness has been a key to his success.
BY KEVIN McNAMARA | Journal Sports Writer
FOXBORO -- In his two seasons as a starting nose tackle with the Patriots, Vince Wilfork has known nothing but success.
The 24-year-old from Miami started as a rookie on the Super Bowl XXXIX title team and last season led all Patriots defensive linemen in tackles and was second on the team overall. With such a positive career path, you'd think Wilfork could rest on his laurels a bit and be happy.
But contentment is not one of Wilfork's traits. A 6-foot-2, 325-pound bull, he's always working on his technique, his strength and his speed. Even with good numbers, midway through the 2005 season he knew something was wrong with his play.
Opposing running backs were dominating the Patriots defense. LaDainian Tomlinson (134 yards), Tatum Bell (114), Willis McGahee (136) and Edgerrin James (104) all ran wild through the season's first half, leaving the Pats with a mediocre 4-4 record.
Wilfork, with an assist from coach Bill Belichick, wasn't happy and kept searching for answers.
"Just before our (bye), Bill really told me 'Hey, it's not working so this is what we're going to do.' From then on, I put my head down and we went forward," Wilfork said. "Bill knows what he's talking about. I took the criticism and rolled with it and became a better player."
Wilfork said a lesson he learned through that period has stuck with him into this training camp. He learned that relying on his size and quickness alone, always his calling card in college, weren't enough to get the job done in the NFL.
"It's mental," he said. "You're a nose tackle so it's the NFL and you're going to be a big guy. The offensive linemen are going to be big. The physical part of it, that's not a concern. It's more mental than anything. You have to have a strong mental game."
Wilfork's mental breakthrough came through film study, working with his coaches on perfecting technique and learning a little patience.
"I'm a hands-on type of guy. I love contact and one of my strengths is to get my hands on a guy," he said. "But when you put your hands on him, what are you going to do? That was the problem at the beginning of last year. Guys were playing me different every game, so I had to watch film on myself and evaluate myself and see how I could get better.
"I was so close to the ball that I couldn't get the correct reads. That was 90 percent of the problem. Once I backed up off the ball, it started coming to me. That's something to build on. I tell the young guys now, 'back up off the ball and get your reads. It won't hurt you, big or strong, to see what's going on.' That's the easiest way to learn -- back up off the ball."
As a nose tackle, reacting to the ball is the major challenge. Any nose tackle can stuff the run when it's coming right at him. But what about a counter play, or a sweep, or the dreaded play-action pass? Reading the offense and being in the right place with a 300-pounder or two whacking you in the head isn't an easy job.
"There probably isn't another position on the field -- there certainly isn't in our defense -- where a guy can be attacked that quickly from as many different angles as the nose can," said Belichick. "So [Wilfork's] ability to read those things, react to them quickly, be in the right spot and still play with strength and leverage and quickness -- and not be caught off balance or caught either guessing or misreading the play -- that's really what a lot of that position is about. It's having physical skills but also being able to react almost instantaneously to what (the offense) is doing."
To buy more time, Wilfork says he's adjusted his pre-snap routine and lined up a yard or two off the center or the gap where he's looking to attack.
"A lot of people probably look at film and are like 'man, what is he doing?' But I know exactly what I'm doing. That gives me enough time to read what's going on," he said.
Wilfork, Richard Seymour and Ty Warren give the Pats a strong starting front three and valuable Jarvis Green is the super-sub behind them. Asked yesterday if he'd like to join Seymour at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii one February, Wilfork supplied an answer that's surely music to the ears of Patriots' management.
"My next personal goal is to go back to another Super Bowl. I'm happy with that," he said. "Sure you want to go to Pro Bowls and you want to be this and that, but I'm a team type of person and I don't like nothing better than to win. I'll take winning over anything. That's not a biggie for me [to go to the Pro Bowl]. If it happens, it happens, but the only thing I can do is play ball and help my teammates and that's what I'm going to do."