What’s Wrong with Wilfork?
New England's Vince Wilfork's play has dropped off in recent seasons. Steve Palazzolo examines the reasons why.
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)