I've been in Indianapolis all week for the Super Bowl for PFT, trying to justify my hotel room cost by pumping out as many stories as possible.
The columns have run here on Rotoworld, but I wanted to share the mini-features that I've filed throughout the week. So here goes. It's like four columns in one all for the same low price. Let's start with the big man: Vince Wilfork.
Vince Wilfork leads the way for revived Patriots defense
Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork is not an easy man to move. That’s especially true this season because you can’t get him off the field.
Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com notes that Wilfork played 51.8% of the team’s defensive snaps in 2009. That’s fairly typical for any run-stuffing nose tackle, especially one comically listed at 325 pounds. (He’s probably closer to 400 than 300 pounds.)
In 2010, Wilfork’s snap total went up to 69.8%. By this season, Wilfork was up to 86%. In the AFC title game, Wilfork played 67 of 70 snaps. That’s 95.7%.
You can measure leadership in a lot of ways. Wilfork leads by making his presence known almost every snap. He leads by playing more than younger counterparts like Haloti Ngata.
“He leads the way for us on defense,’’ coach Bill Belichick said after the win over Baltimore. “Vince is obviously our most experienced player and he’s been a great leader, great captain all year. His leadership has been tremendous.”
Wilfork was a valuable rookie on the last Patriots title team in 2004. That was a veteran-laden defense on the tail end of a dynasty. This time is different. This is Wilfork’s defense, Wilfork’s time. Now in his eighth season, the 30-year-old is in that career sweet spot where experience and talent meet up perfectly.
Wilfork’s performance against the Ravens was one for the ages: Six tackles, four hurries, three tackles for loss, and a sack. Greg Bedard of the Boston Globe says Wilfork was double or tripled teamed ten times.
“To be honest with you, Vince was ready last week to play this game,’’ linebacker Jerod Mayo said after defeating Baltimore. “He has a ring and no one else on this defense has a ring. And he just expressed the joy that you would get from winning this game and he’s not a liar.”
We are struck by Wilfork’s versatility. He has played defensive end instead of nose tackle quite a bit in the playoffs. He is rushing the passer in addition to being the team’s best run stopper. He’s even picked off two passes this year. (And he knows what to do with the ball.)
New England’s defensive line has put together its two best performances of the season in successive weeks. In a game where the Patriots struggle to match up with the Giants in many areas, don’t be surprised if New England’s defensive line creates all sorts of problems against a shaky New York offensive line.
Vince Wilfork will be leading the way. You can’t get him off the field, and you can’t block him either.
Jason Pierre-Paul is rare
Bill Belichick has seen a lot of players come through the NFL in his 37 years of coaching. There haven’t been many quite like Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.
“He’s very rare,” Belichick said Tuesday.
That word — rare — came up four times from Belichick during the one minute he discussed Pierre-Paul. JPP’s combination of “athleticism, size, and explosiveness” sets the second-year player apart.
Belichick was asked if Pierre-Paul ever made plays on film that made Belichick stop and say “wow.”
“Probably about five times a game he has plays like that,” Belichick interjected before the question was even out. “He comes out of nowhere and makes a tackle. Or jumps ten feet in the air and bats down a ball. Or makes an athletic move at the line of scrimmage while keeping his balance. He’s a rare athlete.”
Pierre-Paul’s personal journey from Boston Market to the NFL is remarkable. The Creole speaker describes his background as “very rough.” But the football journey the Haitian Sensation has taken in two short years is amazing in its own right.
Teammate Justin Tuck said Pierre-Paul was “very raw” when he entered the league.
“On a scale of 1-10, I would say 1,” Tuck said.
One year later, Pierre-Paul is a leading Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He finished with 16.5 sacks, 86 tackles, and more game-changing defensive plays than anyone in football. Teammates Osi Umenyiora, Mathias Kiwanuka, and Tuck all credited Pierre-Paul’s improved understanding of the game.
“He does actual pass rush moves now,” Umenyiora now. “Not just overpowering offensive linemen.”
Pierre-Paul dismissed that idea.
“I don’t have nothing man,” he said with a laugh. “It’s whatever comes to mind. . . . It’s ‘what’s the next move if this one doesn’t work?’ My next move is whatever comes to my head.”
Pierre-Paul has learned more about the game, but we see a simpler explanation for his breakout year. The guy never seems to get tired. His effort is the same in the middle of the fourth quarter as it is in the first quarter. Draft analysts questioned Pierre-Paul’s motor coming out of college, but his hustle sets him apart.
Combine his talent with that sort of effort and you have the potential for greatness.
“He’s a supreme athlete. He plays the game with a lot of hustle. He finishes plays. If you watch him from game-to-game, he throws his body around,” Patriots guard Brian Waters said. “There aren’t many people in the history of the game that can do some of the thing he does athletically. But there’s a lot of talented guys that haven’t worked as hard or hustled as much.”
Pierre-Paul genuinely doesn’t seem to understand the buzz around him. He’s the type of supremely gifted athlete that doesn’t see himself as special. He doesn’t realize how much better he can get.
“It’s just the will to play. You gotta keep going full strength, full speed. You know people are watching, so put on a show,” Pierre-Paul said.
A lot of people will be watching Sunday. Don’t be surprised if JPP puts on a show.
Belichick's kind of roster: Patriots have 18 undrafted free agents
The Patriots have put together a roster full of guys that no one else wanted. It’s a motley crew and that seems to suit this organization best.
Sure, Tom Brady is protected by an offensive line with a good pedigree. The defense is led by first round picks Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork.
But overall this is one of the most random rosters in the league. 18 undrafted free agents dot the 53-man roster, including eight starters.
More than one-third of the Patriots roster was undrafted. The Patriots also have eleven more players that were taken in the fifth round or later in the draft. Less than half of the team was drafted in the first four rounds. 12 Patriots were signed “off the street” or during training camp.
Essentially, the Patriots have a roster of misfits. We think that’s been a big part of their success this year. It’s a roster that Belichick embraces, and one that falls in line with the “Patriot Way.”
“I tell the team that I don’t care how you got here, it’s what you do when you get here. It doesn’t matter if you were drafted in the second round, the fifth round, or not drafted at all,” Belichick said in response to a question from PFT in Indianapolis.
A lot of teams say that to their players, but most squads are more sentimental about hanging on to past mistakes. The Patriots are far from perfect in personnel, but they do a better job than most of self-scouting.
“Players ask me before the season, if we sign them as a free agent or if we draft them, ‘What do you want my role to be?’ Whatever you make it, I don’t know,” Belichick said. “If you play good, you will have a big role, if you don’t play very well, then someone else will have a bigger role than you will.”
Belichick says he looks for undrafted players that are dependable and work hard. That sounds obvious, but it’s clear the Patriots genuinely value these skills more than raw talent. Their running back position — led by two undrafted players BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead — is a great example of the Patriots finding diamonds in the rough and knowing how to use them.
“There’s a goal that they have in mind with the guys that they bring in, and they try to bring in guys that they think will buy into that,” special teams ace and fifth-round pick Matthew Slater said. “You kind of have that sense of urgency from the day you come into the league knowing that things are not going to be easy for you.”
“With [Belichick], you know the best players are going to play. No matter where you are taken or what the deal is or anything else, the best players are going to be out there. If you prove yourself, there’s no politics about it,” Wes Welker said.
That’s why Belichick is comfortable enough to bench a $6 million receiver (Chad Ochocinco), release a free agent bust (Albert Haynesworth), or even trade a future Hall of Famer (Randy Moss) in the middle of the season.
“You’ve got to kind of come in and be willing to do dirty work; whatever it takes to stick around,” Slater said. “I think a lot of guys on this team have that mentality, and that’s why we’ve had the success that we’ve had.”
This may not be the most talented Patriots team of the last decade, but it’s obvious Belichick loves to coach this group.
It’s his kind of team.
On the beleaguered Patriots secondary
There is no better example of New England’s odd roster composition than in the secondary.
They have four players who have changed positions. Cornerbacks are playing safety, safeties are playing cornerback, and two wide receivers are playing both positions.
The best cornerback (Kyle Arrington) was undrafted. The leader of the group may just be a “street free agent” safety that was signed late in training camp. PFT spoke to a few Patriots players Thursday morning that said former Jets safety James Ihedigbo was the leader of the secondary.
“I definitely have taken on a leadership role. I’ve played in a lot of big games in my young career in the NFL and those guys understand that,” Ihedigbo said.
He made two straight AFC title games in New York, and now has reached the Super Bowl. Ihedigbo was known as a limited player in New York that specialized in big hits with poor coverage. He makes a physical tandem with Patrick Chung, who is probably the best player in the secondary right now. Ihedigbo says he thinks day and night of what he’s going to do in the Super Bowl.
It says a lot the Patriots are relying so heavily on Ihedigbo, a player no other team wanted. The team is also counting on rookie undrafted free agent Sterling Moore, who was cut by both the Patriots and Raiders this year while playing safety. Now he’s at cornerback.
“There was a point, especially after being cut after I started three games at safety, where I wondered if I’d be on practice squad the rest of the season,” Moore said. “You let that creep out of your mind.”
I asked him about the differences between the Raiders and the Patriots.
“Everybody’s more . . . businesslike here,” Moore said, shaking his head. “As many superstars we have on the team, they don’t act like it.”
Devin McCourty is the somewhat fallen star of the group. He made the Pro Bowl as a rookie cornerback and struggled so much this season that he’s primarily been playing safety of late. He’s taken the change in stride and points out the team has played its best football of late because they have settled in roles.
He admits that some of Bill Belichick’s moves come as a surprise.
“Yeah, because my football mind isn’t there yet. I can’t think how he thinks, but it usually works pretty well,” McCourty said.
One of the most surprising moves: Making wide receiver Julian Edelman a cornerback and using receiver Matthew Slater at safety on occasion. Edelman has grown into a cornerback the Patriots trust enough to man the slot with a Super Bowl trip on the line. His physical play has genuinely given the opposition problems.
So how will this group attack New York’s three talented wideouts?
McCourty said that limiting yards after the catch was an emphasis for Super Bowl Sunday. He doesn’t expect the Patriots to match up with the same Giants receivers all game. He expects the Patriots to mix up coverages quite a bit.
Moore said they are focusing on ball skills. All of the players said they expect the unexpected come gametime.
“We’ll see things, we change it up midgame,” Moore said.
Changing on the fly has become the norm for this Patriots secondary. It’s amazing this group plays for the team slightly favored on Super Bowl Sunday.
If they can hold up one more week, it will be even more amazing this group will be a Super Bowl-winning secondary.