What's Wrong with Wilfork?
Perhaps the most common question we receive here at PFF is: “why is Player X rated so low?”
These questions arise especially when a player’s reputation does not match up with his performance level as we’ve graded it and New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork is the latest of the big names to be pulling in a poor grade this season.
So why is Wilfork rated as our third-worst defensive tackle at -9.7 for the season? I think there are a number of reasons including scheme, usage, and general decline in play. In New England, I know it’s nearly as taboo to criticize Wilfork as it is Tom Brady, but the on-field production has been lacking.
Let’s start by taking a look at Wilfork’s numbers.
Year Overall Grade Run D Grade Pass Rush Grade PRP Run Stop % Snaps Snap %
2008 +14.8 +13.3 +0.2 4.9 11.4% 614 63.3%
2009 +10.6 +12.0 -1.6 2.5 12.3% 564 64.7%
2010 +13.5 +17.1 -6.7 3.3 10.4% 832 71.0%
2011 +10.9 +8.7 -3.2 3.2 8.7% 1173 86.6%
2012 -9.7 -5.4 -5.7 2.9 6.1% 519 82.5%
What are the factors for Wilfork’s decline in play since 2008?
The first noticeable change for the Patriots has been their switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme. Now, in today’s NFL, the change is not as drastic as it once was as the two schemes have meshed their principles throughout the years. Still, Wilfork has taken on a lot of responsibilities as the Patriots have undergone their defensive changes.
For years Wilfork was regarded as one of the very best 3-4 nose tackles in the game, and our numbers certainly backed up that claim. But since 2009, he’s been used in a variety of roles including 3-4 defensive end and, most recently, 4-3 defensive tackle.
Here’s Wilfork’s usage pattern since 2008:
NT 4-3 DT 3-4 DE 4-3 DE Total Snaps
2008 493 95 26 0 614
2009 163 285 94 22 564
2010 412 115 304 1 832
2011 224 565 372 9 1170
2012 35 242 240 1 518
*For this exercise, “4-3 DT” refers to any interior DT position in a 4-man front, regardless of personnel grouping (base, nickel, dime, etc). Similarly, “3-4 DE” is simply a defensive end in any three-man front.
As we can see, Wilfork has certainly evolved from being simply a 3-4 nose tackle to showing an ability to play all over the defensive line. This year’s 35 snaps at the position are on pace to be well below his yearly average and taking him away from his strengths could be one reason for his decline in play. It’s no coincidence that Wilfork’s best run-stopping grades (2008 and 2010) have come in years where he was predominantly a pure nose tackle.
2) New Role: Three-Down Player
In addition to playing new positions along the defensive front, Wilfork added the role of ‘three-down player’ to his resume last season. The first chart above shows his yearly snap percentages, and last year Wilfork played 87% of the team’s snaps, well above his previous season-high of 71%.
Previously regarded simply a run stuffer, he rarely came off the field in 2011 and was asked to rush the passer in obvious passing situations for the first time in his career. As we see by his numbers, anything Wilfork provided as a pass rusher was generally viewed as a bonus, given his penchant for clogging running lanes, so why was he asked to take on such a prominent role?
I believe the reasons for his increased play were twofold. First, the Patriots were quickly depleted on the interior early in 2011 as former pass rush specialists Mike Wright and Myron Pryor fell to injury. But even more than personnel issues, it seemed that head coach Bill Belichick was intent on shoring up a Patriots’ weakness that had been lingering for a few years.
Belichick often spoke of the need to better stop the run in their sub packages, so what better way to do so than to sacrifice some pass rushing to bring in one of the best run stoppers in the league. I’m still undecided if Belichick’s strategy was ahead of the curve or slightly archaic, but the numbers seem to back up his strategy:
2011 Att. Yds. Avg. TD Conv % Stop %
NE Base 267 1180 4.4 3 23.6% 47.9%
NFL Base Avg 270 1148 4.2 5 20.2% 54.8%
NE Sub Package 173 757 4.4 8 23.1% 51.9%
NFL Sub-Pkg Avg 109 511 4.7 3 23.0% 52.7%
The key numbers to look at are the average yards per carry and Stop Percentage. The average NFL team surrenders 0.5 more yards per carry in their sub packages while the Patriots were able to maintain the same 4.4 average. These numbers are even more important considering the Patriots faced 64 more sub-package runs than the average team.
But what was the cost of improving the sub-package run defense?
Ask any New England fan where the team’s weakness lies and the first response will be about the defense, namely the pass defense. Last year the Patriots gave up passing yards by the truckload and this year has been much of the same. The secondary has received plenty of the blame, but the lack of pass rush in New England is not a new problem and perhaps neglecting the issue in order to shore up some run defense is one of the main culprits.
So the question becomes, is the negligible improvement in sub package run defense worth the inability to pressure the quarterback?
Here’s a look at the Patriots’ interior pass rush:
Patriots Interior Rushers Interior Rush Snaps Pass Rush Grade Total Pressure PRP
Vince Wilfork 318 -5.7 12 2.9
Kyle Love 192 -3.9 10 4.4
Jermaine Cunningham 164 -5.7 15 6.3
Brandon Deaderick 51 -2.8 0 0.0
Ron Brace 25 -0.2 2 5.6
*Pass Rush Grades are season total, regardless of position
*NFL average PRP for defensive tackles is 4.5
Two more reasons for Wilfork’s decline… (Page 2)
3) Against the Run
Despite what some analysts tell you, there’s more to playing on the interior than just ‘being fat’. That’s the typical sentiment when describing nose tackle play, particularly in a 3-4, but there is much more to it. Wilfork has excelled in that role not only because of size and strength, but also athleticism and his ability to shed blocks and make plays.
When playing directly over the center, Wilfork’s strength has always been his ability to deliver a blow and control both gaps to either side of the pivot man. Despite his declining grades, Wilfork is still capable of making an impact in this area, but as we see in the table above, his run grades have declined as he’s been forced to move around the line. While his versatility may be good for the Patriots, it’s taken him away from his natural skill set.
It all comes down to Wilfork playing better when he’s asked to two-gap at the point of attack. He’s able to use his strength to move offensive lineman and he has the awareness to find the ballcarrier. Wilfork is much less effective when he’s forced to shoot the gap in between two linemen. This job is generally reserved for smaller, quicker defensive linemen and it does not mesh well with Wilfork’s talents.
Let’s take a look at a few plays from this season.
vs. Buffalo Bills, Week 10, Q1 1:54
Wilfork lines up at 0-technique, right over the center in the Patriots’ 3-4 alignment.
At the snap, he does exactly what everyone around the league knows him to do and manhandles center Eric Wood, redirecting him into any possible running lanes. Wilfork’s two-gapping form forces running back C.J. Spiller to redirect his run, though the 7-yard gain is certainly not Wilfork’s fault.
This is his most natural position and this is the type of play that gave Wilfork his reputation as one of the best run stoppers in the league.
vs. New York Jets, Week 7, Q1 4:03
Wilfork is aligned slightly to the outside shoulder of the left guard in a 3-technique position. At the snap, he does not try to penetrate the backfield, instead giving a good punch to left guard Vladimir Ducasse. The running play is designed to go right up the middle behind the center, but with Ducasse at bay, Wilfork is easily able to shed his block and make the tackle for a 1-yard gain.
vs. New York Jets, Week 7, Q2 0:53
Wilfork lines up as the 3-technique, in between the right guard and right tackle, on 3rd-and-1.
He tries to penetrate the gap between the guard and tackle, but RT Austin Howard beats him to the punch and manhandles Wilfork to the ground.
The vacated gap makes for an easy third-down conversion for the Jets.
vs. Buffalo Bills, Week 10, Q1 1:20
Wilfork lines up at 1-technique, in between the right guard and the center in the Patriots’ 4-3 front. Even though this position is still considered the nose, Wilfork’s responsibilities are different in this alignment. He penetrates the A-gap at the snap, and despite a good get-off, right guard Kraig Urbik is able to push him right out of the gap creating a running lane for RB Fred Jackson.
vs. Buffalo Bills, Week 10, Q3 4:59
Wilfork is aligned as the 2-technique, head up on the guard. Usually a “head-up” alignment signifies the defender is going to try and control two gaps, but on this play, Wilfork is once again asked to penetrate the A-gap between the right guard and the center. Much like the running play in the first quarter, Wilfork’s penetration is handled easily by Urbik who moves him across the formation to open the hole for Spiller and a 6-yard gain.
4) Rushing the Passer, Penalties and More
The pass rushing numbers are self-explanatory. While Wilfork makes a handful of ‘splash’ plays that seem to stick in everyone’s mind, they need to be kept in context given the number of opportunities he has in a given game. Against the Buffalo Bills for instance, he forced a fumble on a sack and provided two other hurries. The forced fumble was a big play, but when we realize he rushed the passer 46 times, that leaves 43 snaps that he provided very little against the pass.
Another factor in Wilfork’s poor grade this season is his penalties. He’s already reached a career-high (since 2008) with four on the season and his -2.1 penalty grade is among the worst in the league for defensive tackles.
To put a positive spin on Wilfork’s season, he’s leading all defensive tackles with a +3.5 coverage grade, which isn’t to say he’s going to be moving to cornerback any time soon, but it speaks to his awareness in reading screens and other short passes. Wilfork’s football IQ is one of the main reasons he’s been so effective as a nose tackle and it carries over into the passing game as well. It’s no coincidence that he was able to intercept two passes last season as he does a good job of making up for his lack of pass rushing impact by disrupting a handful of passes every year.
It’s not time to write off Wilfork’s career. It comes down to a player who’s had to take on added responsibilities, both schematically and in workload. Perhaps he’s been playing out of position, doing ‘what’s best for the team’, but in reality he’s not fit to play every position along the defensive line. It may also be a case of his playing a ridiculous 1173 snaps last season; no small task for the 350+ pounder (I’m pretty sure his list weight of 325 pounds is from high school).
If the Patriots want to get the most production out of Wilfork and their entire defensive line, it’s time to put him in a better position that plays to his strengths and masks his weaknesses.
Follow Steve on Twitter: @PFF_Steve