NFL

Wilfork, Patriots wary of reeling Redskins

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP)

Merely minutes into last week's game against the winless Indianapolis Colts, Vince Wilfork barreled through the offensive line and set the tone with an early sack.

The New England Patriots' Pro Bowl nose tackle was untouchable. The sky was the limit.

Or so he thought.

"I think as a defensive lineman, you start off like that, you think you can do it all day," Wilfork said Thursday. "But it doesn't work like that. I was happy with the one I did get. Now, it's on to Washington."

The Colts, surprisingly, gained some momentum and battled in a 31-24 loss to New England. Perhaps the Patriots (9-3) will learn from that, when they take on the struggling Redskins (4-8) on Sunday.

"My goal is to win. That's my biggest goal. I care less about myself and stats and stuff like that," Wilfork said. "My goal is to do what I can to help this ballclub be a good ballclub, to win and do my job. This week, that's a challenge for us . This is a big week, a do-your-job week because of some things they do."

What the Redskins actually "do" may not be glamorous. It might not even work at times. After all, their ground game has been virtually grounded, ranking 31st in the league with a paltry 87.5 yards rushing per game.

Wilfork and the Patriots are unfazed by all of that.

He knows all the statistics. He understands he'll likely be facing a rookie running back this week. He's well aware that the Redskins have barely eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark with just four games to play. He's also, though, quite cognizant of Washington coach Mike Shanahan and the rushing-rich history that travels with him, leaving Wilfork to dispel any notion that Washington can't run the ball effectively.

"Shanahan, he's old-school. You look at film, they're physical. And one way you can gauge a team, how tough they are, is can they run the football? And they do it, they run the ball," he said. "People can say whatever they want about it, but trust me, this team right here can run the football.

"I don't care what back they put in, I don't care what lineman they shuffle around, they're all physical and they take pride in running the football. It's a big, big challenge for us defensively, but as a defensive player, you have to live for these games."

Shanahan's teams in Denver - en route to back-to-back Super Bowl titles in 1997 and 1998 - never shied away from running the ball, even with Hall of Famer John Elway at the helm. During his time in Denver, Shanahan's squads never averaged less than 116 yards rushing per game, and led the league once.

The Redskins are a different animal, though.

They had a promising start, leaping out to a 3-1 mark behind the solid play of quarterback Rex Grossman and running back Tim Hightower, who ran for 209 yards in three games.

Hightower, however, suffered a knee injury and was lost for the season a few weeks later. The possibility of a potent rushing attack, the staple of Shanahan's 14-year tenure as coach of the Broncos, vanished with him. The low point came a day before Halloween when Ryan Torain amassed just 14 yards on eight carries in a 23-0 loss to Buffalo, leading Shanahan to say it was as bad as "I've ever been involved with from the offensive side."

But amid Washington's six-game losing streak, it's longest since an 0-7 start to the 1998 campaign, rookie Roy Helu began to blossom.

In his first career start against San Francisco on Nov. 6, the fourth-round draft pick from Nebraska racked up 41 yards rushing and added 105 yards receiving on 14 catches. After serving as second-string the following week, averaging 6.8 yards on just six carries, he exploded for 162 total yards - 108 rushing - and added a fourth-quarter touchdown in the skid-snapping victory over Seattle.

At 5-foot-11 and 219 pounds, Helu has rushed for 456 yards and two touchdowns, but also has hauled in 42 catches for 309 yards.

The predominant portion of his production has come in the last five games, too, beginning with that starting nod against the 49ers. With 70 carries and 30 catches in that span, Helu is averaging more than 108 total yards a game.

And with tight end Fred Davis' team-high 59 catches and 796 yards out of the mix this week as he begins serving his four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, Shanahan may opt to rely more on the run than ever before.

So what if the Patriots' pass defense ranks last in the league, surrendering 310 yards a game? And who cares if their rushing defense has yet to permit a 100-yard rusher?

Wilfork still envisions a hearty helping of Helu, who is looking to become the first rookie in team history to rush for 100 yards in three straight games.

"They run the ball very, very well. So, that starts up front," Wilfork said. "It starts up front with the defensive line and the inside backers, so we have to do a real good job of stopping the run, playing the run well to be successful against them.

"If not, we'll lose this ball game."

Tagged: Patriots, Redskins, Vince Wilfork, Tim Hightower, Roy Helu Jr.

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