(Just a warning for those faint of heart, the statistics you are about to read are not pretty and are not made for children. Please keep your arms and legs inside the article at all times and be safe.)
How much is respect worth in the NFL? How do coaches scheme based upon their opponents? Will they try and use the same lesson plan throughout the season, or will they adjust based upon the opposing personnel? The Patriots have two players on their roster that dictate such respect from opposing teams that they change how they play. One is, of course, Tom Brady.
The other is Vince Wilfork.
Wilfork played the first four games of the season before injuring himself, and since that pivotal moment, the Patriots have had four more games. While the sample sizes might not be the largest, the impact of Vince's absence is clear: Much like bug repellent, Wilfork seems to have a way of deterring the opposition from running the ball.
Now I'll be upfront and say that some of the difference in playcalling has to do with the scenario. The Buccaneers and the Falcons were both down large amounts to the Patriots and were forced to throw the ball, while the past four games have been closer competitions, leading to a more natural rate of running the ball. But the disparity in the final numbers were so great, I thought I'd share them with you, from a range of least impact to largest impact.
Shockingly enough, the Patriots have improved in their short yardage play, with the loss of Wilfork.
Over the first 4 games, the opposition had 20 plays with <4 yards to a first down or end zone. Of those, 14 resulting in a first down or touchdown, for a 30% defensive success rate. The past four games have had 27 opportunities, with 18 first downs or touchdowns, for a 33.3% success rate.
What's the reasoning behind this improvement? Keep in mind that the Patriots have been missing Tommy Kelly and Jerod Mayo for parts of this time as well. The combination of DTs Joe Vellano, Chris Jones, and Marcus Forston is an improvement over Wilfork and Kelly?
A lot can be attributed to the elevated play by Dont'a Hightower and especially Brandon Spikes in the run game. After playing a more coverage role to open the season, Hightower has been asked to be more active in the backfield, wreaking more havoc than before. Spikes has seen his playing time increase from 31.6% in the first four games to 78.4%. According to Pro Football Focus, Spikes had 8 stops in the first quarter of the season. Once he started playing more against Cincinnati, he ratcheted up 8 stops in that game alone, and has 22 with Wilfork gone.
So while the defense has improved ever slightly in the short yardage game, it's mostly due to the impact of the linebackers, as opposed to the high level of play by the defensive tackles.
With that in mind, note that the opposition has decided to run the ball 5.2% more in short yardage situations now that Wilfork is missing. With Wilfork, the opposition ran nearly 50/50 in short yardage, passing 21 times and running 20. Without Wilfork, the passing attempts are 23, while the rushes are 27. Interestingly enough, teams averages rushes of 3.25 yards with Wilfork, and only 2.74 without him. That's half a yard per carry, and quite a big impact in short yardage situations.
Just imagine how good they'd be with Spikes playing alongside Wilfork.
First Half Impact
Our next step was to see if losing Wilfork had an impact early in the game, before any lead dictated playcalling. So we looked at plays by half, and we see that quality of the Patriots run defense has decreased ever so slightly.
Of the 58 first half running plays with Wilfork, 10 of them were converted for first downs (17.2%), for an average of 3.79 yards per carry. Of the 67 snaps without Wilfork, 13 have gone for first downs (19.4%), for an average of 3.85 yards per carry. In reality, that difference is nigh negligible.
What isn't negligible is how teams think they'll be able to dictate the game by running against the Patriots. Going hand-and-hand with the Patriots poor offensive output against the Bengals, the Patriots were unable to distance themselves from the Bengals, Saints, Jets, and Dolphins in the second quarter of the season, allowing teams the benefit of running the ball, instead of how the Bucs and Falcons had to throw from so far behind.
In the first four games with Wilfork, teams ran 139 first half plays, with 41.7% being rushes. Without Wilfork, there have been a near identical 138 plays, but the runs have spiked to 48.6%, a noteworthy difference of 6.8%, or a 16.4% increase in rushing plays.
So the impact of losing Wilfork is similar in the first half as it is in short yardage: almost negligible with respect to defensive success, but clearly evident in how the opponent decides to attack the Patriots.
Full Game Impact
So we've looked at Wilfork's impact on short yardage and in the first half. Perhaps his ability to remain strong in the second half is where his true value is. Wilfork's seen a huge increase in snaps over the past few seasons, so his physical conditioning has been truly remarkable. How does that affect the Patriots' defensive performance?
Of the 270 snaps on defense over the first quarter of the season, opposing teams ran it 104, or 38.5% of the time. Without Wilfork, the defense has seen 301 snaps and have faced the run 148 times, or 49.2%. That's a 10.7% increase and that's extremely noteworthy.
Compare that to the teams and their general make-up? The teams that ran it only 38.5% of the time against the Patriots have run it 52.0% of the time for the rest of the season. Wilfork at least partially dictated that 13.5% swing. The teams who ran 49.2% without Wilfork? They're aligning themselves more closely with their season average of 51.0%. So while we can attribute some of the running plays to situation, that's a fairly large discrepancy that the loss of Wilfork definitely plays a part in.
Additionally, teams were getting a first down or a touchdown against the Patriots on 19.2% of their runs with Wilfork on the field. That number has bumped up to 26.4% without him, for a 7.1% difference. In other words, the defense's fail rate has declined 37% compared to the Wilfork defense.
The reason being that down the stretch of these games, the opposing team seems to be able to run over the Patriots with more ease than when they had Wilfork. While they averaged 4.04 yards per carry with Wilfork, they're now averaging 4.23. Offenses are finding that they can often overwhelm the light defensive line of Jones and Vellano as the game wears long. That burst they both showed against the run on the first drive against Miami? That mostly disappeared deeper into the game.
The addition of Isaac Sopoaga and the return of Tommy Kelly (hopefully soon) will bolster the defensive tackle position and allow the players to remain fresher over the course of the game. Is the loss of Wilfork more than just having a healthy rotational body? I'd like to think so, but the return of Kelly and the addition of Soap will tell more over the next half of the season.
And here's the big one that I was saving for the finale. How has the loss of Wilfork impacted first down, which is generally considered a rushing down? Let's do this rapid fire:
Of the 115 first down plays with Wilfork, the opposing team ran it 53 times, or 46.1%.
Of the 134 first down plays without Wilfork, the opposing team ran it 83 times, or 61.9%.
That's a difference of 15.9%, or an increase of 34.4%.
Yards per carry
Opposing teams averaged 4.06 yards per carry while facing Wilfork.
Opposing teams averaged 5.01 yards per carry without him.
That's an increase of nearly a yard per carry, or an increase of 23.4%.
Of the 53 plays on first down against Wilfork, the opposing team ran for 3 first downs, for a measly 5.7%, well above the league average of 15.1%.
Of the 83 plays without Wilfork, the opposing team notched 14 first downs for a rate of 16.9% which, compared to above, makes the run defense now below average on first down.
How's that for a difference?
So the value of Wilfork is actually quite large (hah). He's clearly important with regards to the first down defense and, at the very least, his reputation has deterred teams from even bothering to run the ball. Of course, situational football has dictated the additional runs in the second quarter of the season, just as much as it caused teams to run the ball less in the first quarter, but the fact remains: Wilfork had an important impact on the Patriots defense and they're worse off for not having him.
Now if that impact is due to the lack of rotation at that position, or because the games have been closer, or because Spikes has played more, or because it's Tom Brady's fault, that remains to be seen. But the truth is, the loss of Wilfork has had an impact on the strength of the defense. Hopefully Soap and Kelly can help fix some of these issues, and hopefully Spikes can continue to clean up some of the issues.
No matter what happens though, we miss you Wilfork.