2 rookies likely to step in for injured Wilfork

Vince Wilfork helped his rookie backups as they tried to learn
the New England Patriots’ complex defense.

Now, results of his teaching could be tested.

The star defensive tackle is expected to miss the rest of the
season after tearing his right Achilles tendon. That should mean
more playing time for Joe Vellano and Chris Jones. Vellano wasn’t
drafted and Jones already has been cut by two teams.

”Obviously, somebody is going to have to replace him,” New
England coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday, ”but, collectively,
as a team, we’re all going to have to pull together. There’s no one
person that can replace Vince Wilfork.”

The five-time Pro Bowl player is probably heavier than his
listed weight of 325 pounds. Vellano is listed at 300 and Smith at
309. And they’re way behind him – about nine years – in knowing
what to do in the middle of the defensive line.

Wilfork, drafted by the Patriots in the first round in 2004, has
missed just six games in his career. But he was injured on the
Patriots’ first defensive series of their 30-23 win over the
Atlanta Falcons last Sunday night. He underwent surgery, and his
wife tweeted a photo of him on a recliner and giving a thumbs-up
sign while his right foot was in a cast.

”Vince was the rock in there, man,” safety Steve Gregory said.
”He’s a heck of a football player and a big loss for our
team.”

He still should be around Gillette Stadium, rehabbing and
eventually attending team meetings.

”You can’t learn enough from him. He’s miles ahead of
everybody, so you’re trying to just pick up here and there,”
Vellano said. ”Vince is irreplaceable, one of the best guys at the
position and a leader.”

The Patriots signed Vellano in early May, about a week after he
went undrafted out of Maryland. He played in 38 percent of the
snaps in the first three games, then in 43 percent against Atlanta.
He picked up his first sack against the Falcons.

Jones was drafted by the Houston Texans out of Bowling Green in
the sixth round. He was waived on Aug. 31 and claimed by Tampa Bay.
But he was inactive for the Buccaneers’ opener on Sept. 8 and
released two days later. He signed with the Patriots the next
day.

”There’s some down times, obviously, getting rejected so many
times,” Jones said, ”but I’m here now and I’m happy.”

He made his NFL debut last Sunday night, playing 19 of the 76
snaps as the Patriots improved to 4-0. He could play more at
Cincinnati on Sunday, when the Bengals (2-2) could focus on running
with Wilfork’s massive presence missing.

”He’s a great football player. Really, just sit back and watch
him,” Jones said. ”He’s a pretty quiet guy, but he’s a great
leader. He’ll take me to the side and he’s actually one of the
first guys that came up to me and talked to me and introduced
himself.”

Wilfork often is double teamed, creating openings for teammates.
Now Tommy Kelly, who played his other nine seasons with the Oakland
Raiders, should get most of that attention as the other starting
defensive tackle.

”The biggest thing is that those guys are very consistent day
in and day out,” Vellano said, ”and they play blocks the right
way every time.”

Jones was nervous when he went into Sunday’s game, but expects
to be calmer at Cincinnati.

”You can’t really replace a player like Vince,” he said, ”but
all we can do is just keep practicing hard and getting better as a
whole.”

And learn from Wilfork in the meeting rooms.

”He’ll be here giving everything he can to the team, still,”
quarterback Tom Brady said. ”His presence in the locker room, on
the field will be missed. At the same time, the train keeps moving.
No one feels sorry for the Patriots. We have to keep fighting on,
just as Vince would want us to do. He wants us to go out there and
play well and he’ll encourage us.

”There are big shoes to fill, literally and figuratively,
because he’s such a unique talent and player and person, but we
have to still go out there and try to win games.”

Notes: Besides Wilfork, special teams captain Matthew Slater
(wrist) and running back Stevan Ridley (knee) missed practice.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski (forearm, back) and wide receiver Danny
Amendola (groin) were limited. Gronkowski has missed all four games
and Amendola has missed the last three.

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org