What’s Wrong with Wilfork?

New England's Vince Wilfork's play has dropped off in recent seasons. Steve Palazzolo examines the reasons why.

| 5 years ago

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.

YearOverall GradeRun D GradePass Rush GradePRPRun Stop %SnapsSnap %

What are the factors for Wilfork’s decline in play since 2008?

1) Scheme

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:

 NT4-3 DT3-4 DE4-3 DETotal Snaps

*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:

2011Att.Yds.Avg.TDConv %Stop %
NE Base26711804.4323.6%47.9%
NFL Base Avg27011484.2520.2%54.8%
NE Sub Package1737574.4823.1%51.9%
NFL Sub-Pkg Avg1095114.7323.0%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 RushersInterior Rush SnapsPass Rush GradeTotal PressurePRP
Vince Wilfork318-5.7122.9
Kyle Love192-3.9104.4
Jermaine Cunningham164-5.7156.3
Brandon Deaderick51-2.800.0
Ron Brace25-0.225.6

*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)

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

  • Pat Thorman

    Awesome article. Really enjoyed it.
    It’s ironic that he struggles to shoot gaps now considering Belichick had to beat that tendency out of him with a stick when he was coming out of Miami.
    I wonder what his pass rush grades are by quarter (or even by half). Might be remembering wrong, but it seems he makes plays early in games – and is a lot more animated – versus later in games. Although he does seem to be able to pace himself and bring it on more important downs (blowing up Birk late in last year’s AFC Championship game, for instance).

    One question ..you say:
    “So the question becomes, is the negligible improvement in sub package run defense worth the inability to pressure the quarterback?”
    ..that sort of assumes they’d be appreciably better pressuring the QB withOUT him in on typical passing downs. Can that really be assumed given their current personnel/scheme?

  • roguepatriot

    “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.”

    Amen to that, brother.

  • Mike

    You can rattle off stat after stat about his decline, but a scout is not going to agree whatsoever. Has he played as ferociously as in years past? Maybe not. Some of that to do with his increased snaps i bet. Mostly id say due to the emergence of cunningham/jones and development of Love. Lets also gloss over the fact that he gets held on nearly every play and it isn’t called because they would have to throw a flag every play. The run defense has been stellar until this last week, and it all starts with Wilfork. Its just impossible for o lineman to get up field to take on Mayo and Spikes. Overall i just want to caution Pats fans to not start calling for wilfork’s oversize body roasting on a stake, but pay a little more attention to Ninkovich’s inconsistency and kyle arrington’s abysmal performance this season.

    • zach

      Really, your excuse for his decline is that he gets held? Im pretty sure every interior defensive lineman technically get “held” almost every play, the only time it is blatant enough to get called is when the d-lineman can get into the backfield and get the offensive lineman out in the open, where the hold can be seen. Maybe the problem isn’t the refs but maybe it’s Wilfork.

    • izach

      from a wscouting point of view the fact that he is still demanding double teams is a plus the whole point of a NT is too keep the ILB clean, but if NE is running more of 4-3 then wilfork is a 350lb round peg being forced into a square hole meant for a guy under 320, maybe at 25 wilfork could use his atholetism to do that but not at his age now. but what will happen is the pats will trade wilfork probably after next year and make out like bandits becuase they unloaded an expensive old player for good draft picks, even if wilfork does well with his new team (like seymor has) the patriots will be the real winners. its the NE way

    • Martin

      Lol at the “he’s getting held on every play.”

  • spacecrime

    Any stat that ‘proves’ Ron Brace and Brandon Deaderick are better than Vince Wilfork if faulty.

    • jimbo

      man, you are on the wrong site.

    • Phresh

      Pass rush wise dumbass… Wilfork was never considered a good pass rusher…

  • Cjkern1

    Very informative PFF. I’ve always enjoyed watching big #75 play, and this article certainly sheds some perspective on the different ways he has been used in recent years.

    I have noticed that Belichick this year has started to employ defensive ends in the interior on 3rd downs which I can’t remember him doing much in the past, specifically Cunningham with Kyle Love coming off. Mixed results to this point I’d argue.

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  • Ben

    PFF has excellent grades for most positions, but I have always found that the grading system for DT/NTs never seems to reflect what I and, judging by popular opinion, most people, are seeing on the field. Watching the Patriots defense this year, it seems like Wilfork has been as valuable as ever. While he might not be excelling in one particular field like he has in the past, the way they are moving him around on the line means he is occupying double teams at specific points where they are sending pressure, instead of simply right up the middle, and his presence in the run game is one of the reasons why the Pats pathetic defense has a surprisingly excellent run defense.

    • RobDX

      Agree. I see him constantly occupying two men allowing Chandler to get loose. Last year his stats where nice looking because he played 3-4-5 tech DE when there was injuries/Albert left

  • http://twitter.com/DryHeave1 DryHeave

    all your numbers are MOST impressive…..However I just use the “eye test”. When they pull Wilfork out for a series to rest him, more often than not the opposing team runs through the Pats like a hot knife through butter. When Wilfork is in there, the Pats run D is very stout ….case closed…..

    • Mike

      So much butthurt.

      Maybe if he wasn’t a fat 400lb slob he would decline at 33 and not 31.

      • Phresh

        you gay…

    • Martin

      “I don’t have any statistics to back this up, but based on the eye test, Wilfork is doing very well. Just because I’m totally watching the ball and not Vince Wilfork doesn’t make my observations less credible.”

  • Lund

    Back in the days when NE was playing 3-4 it was for a reason. The reason was: Richard Seymour and Ty Warren. Those guys aren’t here anymore. As well as Adalius Thomas and Rosevelt Colvin. So NE is forced to play 4-3 regarding their personnel. I don’t think Jones can play OLB, I don’t think Cunningham is a very good OLB. After, for sure, Deaderick and brace need more playing time. Against the run NE has been tough. They had three sacks last sunday. Fans want them to use blitz packages but how can you blitz the opposing quarterback when he’s playing the shotgun 90% of the time ?

  • Zach

    I would like to see an article like this for Brian Urlacher just because from a straight stats point (PFF stats of course, not neanderthal stats) I can’t see what he’s really doing badly.

  • woop woop

    He’s a target for the O-line. He gets double-teamed, his stats go down. But that’s also one less man that can block another line-man or rusher. It’s his role. He’s the D-Lineman we need, not the one we deserve.

    • Martin

      …He’s been double teamed in years past.

      They’re talking about a decline in production.

      Saying, “He’s double-teamed” explains nothing, unless you think teams, JUST THIS YEAR, decided to start double-teaming Wilfork.

  • Ademi

    Whats the name of that camera angle in which you see the back of the o-line, rb, and qb? It’s used on the Jets images.

  • jake

    sure seemed like he had a decent game tonight…

  • Shaun

    I’ve definitely seen a little bit of a decline, he seemed to play at an extremely high level last year especially for a guy playing as many snaps as he did. Case in point the AFC championship game he was all over the place. His decline this year in my eyes isn’t as bad as to say he needs to go anytime soon, but it definitely makes me think that the Patriots will draft a DT in the 1st round next year despite the fact that the Mel Kipers and Todd McFake’s of the world will be calling for cornerbacks and safeties (although safety would be next on my list of needs). Even still, I think calling him the 3rd worst graded interion lineman is preposterous.

  • the hooded genius

    I’m a huge NE and Wilfork fan but I agree with the decline. I’ve re-watched every 2012 Pats game while focusing on big Vince for every single snap [except yesterdays game].

    Wilfork just had a very good game against IND but it had been a down season until then. It’s not just stats either, he’s struggled to get off blocks [single and double] in item to make plays.

  • Mtuck

    “Wilfork fought double teams on third and fourth down as the Jets were stopped by Jerod Mayo in Patriots territory when the score was 7-0.
    Wilfork shoved guard Brandon Moore into Sanchez to cause a fumble that was returned for a touchdown to make it 21-0.
    Wilfork drew a double team that freed Mayo on his sack to end the next drive.
    Wilfork tossed right tackle Austin Howard like a rag doll to stop Bilal Powell for no gain after the two-minute warning.
    And, finally, when the Jets had fourth and goal at the Patriots’ 1-yard line early in the third quarter, Wilfork busted through the gap Shonn Greene wanted to run through. That forced Greene back to the middle where Brandon Spikes stopped him for no gain.”
    Greg Bedard Globe Staff
    Please keep writing how bad Wilfork is. It serves as motivation. Keep up the good work!

  • Mike

    Wilfork had 2 tackles, 1 assist, and 0 sacks last night against the Jets. Think maybe stats aren’t the best way to judge a nose tackle? duh- you gotta be sh**tin me saying wilfork’s play is declining. He has consistently been one the best defensive players in football and has only gotten better each year. What games are you watching, or did you not watch the games and only look at the stats? for judging a nose tackle? Does Haloti Nata suck too? stats lie and you should know that if you are writing an article as a professional football analyst

    • Ben

      You do realize that the point of PFF is they DO watch each player on each play of each game…right?

  • conan11

    Lies, damn lies and statistics. Last night just goes to show how useless stats can be.

  • Gene S

    After the last 5 days, it is difficult to see Vince Wilfork as being in decline. He is slimmer, quicker and stronger than in 2011. He crushes plays directed towards him. He ties up at least two blockers most of the time, freeing another defender to kill the offensive play. He isn’t playing for statistics, but for a team result–and it shows. He has almost single-handed raised the level of play of the entire defense, which has been his goal.

    This is a case where statistics are useless, indeed falling into the category of lies which follows “damned lies”.

  • My10sense

    Anybody that thinks Wilfork ranks lower amongst defensive linemen than Palazzola does amongst football analysts is an idiot.

  • http://twitter.com/PFF_Steve Steve Palazzolo

    Well, Vince has certainly played much better the last two games. He dominated both the Colts and the Jets.