By: Christopher Price
August 05, 2005

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They need a nickname, like the Purple People Eaters, the Fearsome Foursome or the Steel Curtain. A defensive front like the one presented by the Patriots demands attention, the sort of attention that only someone like John Facenda or Harry Kalas can provide.

After all, New England football fans are witnessing history. The youngest and most talented collection of defensive linemen in the NFL -- a group that includes Vince Wilfork, Jarvis Green, Richard Seymour and Ty Warren -- have provided the Patriots with one of the best points of attack in the league, and is a big reason they have won three titles in four years.

And while New England has presented different defensive looks over the last few years -- like the 2-5 they showed in the Super Bowl, or the no-down lineman look they flashed against Buffalo and Miami -- it all starts with the big men in the trenches. At an average age of just 25, the group consists of three first-round picks (Wilfork in 2004, Warren in 2003 and Seymour in 2001) that have all grown together into the terrifying bunch they are today.

The newest of these faces is Wilfork, who came along quickly as a rookie last season, splitting time with Keith Traylor at the nose. He did start six of his first seven games, as well as Super Bowl XXXIX. No rookie started more games last season than Wilfork, and he made the most of it -- he led the Patriots' rookies in tackles with 57, including two sacks.

But that was his rookie season. As a rookie, he acknowledges that most of the time, he was just trying to hold on for dear life as a roller coaster of an NFL season started with a Monday Night clash against the high-octane Colts and ended with a Super Bowl title. After a summer where he watched more film than Ebert and Roeper combined, both he and Head Coach Bill Belichick are acutely aware of what Wilfork needs to do to take his game to the next level.

"He's certainly way ahead of where he was last year because of his experience in the system," Belichick said yesterday. "Vince is in good shape. He's worked hard. I'm pleased with where he is. I still think that as a second-year player there are a lot of things he can do better and he still has a long way to go, but I think he's playing at a good level and he's made a lot of improvement from last year."

"Last year, that was the biggest thing: recognition," Wilfork said. "Knowing where the back is, knowing where the tight end is, just being aware of your surroundings. That's the biggest issue defensive linemen have at this level.

"Now, I can go back and look at film on myself from last year and see the plays I could have made if I knew the defense inside and out," he said. "That's my key this year, to recognize things that's happening around me quicker so I can make those plays."

As an NFL rookie, everything is a whirlwind. So the fans and media may cut you some slack if you slip up. Wilfork knows things will be different this season, especially without Traylor to lean on.

"Everybody thinks: "[Wilfork's] a second-year guy. He knows the defense. He knows the system, he's been in the NFL and he knows what to expect.' So fans and coaches expect a lot out of you," he said. "There are no excuses now -- you're not a rookie anymore. " You have no business out there making dumb mistakes, making rookie mistakes."

No, he'll leave those rookie mistakes to this year's class, guys like offensive lineman Logan Mankins and cornerback Ellis Hobbs. And while he's been helpful -- he's lined up opposite Mankins several times in practice and calls him a "tough athlete and a tough player" -- he can't wait to do his part when it comes to having a little fun at their expense this summer.

"Around here, guys don't do stupid things to rookies. Everything we do around here is in fun," he said with a smile. "You're not coming to work with buttholes every day who what you to "Do this. Do that,' and curse you out. It's not like that around here. Everything we do is fun, and we want to get a laugh out of it.

"They'll be OK. You can ask any rookie -- we haven't done anything that will harm them or to make them feel out of place," he added. "It's all in fun."

Hmmm. That doesn't sound like the kind of thing John Facenda might have uttered about the antics of Deacon Jones. But then again, after just one year in the league, Wilfork already has more Super Bowl rings than the entire Fearsome Foursome ever collected. So maybe the tradeoff isn't so bad, especially for a guy like Wilfork who can't wait for the bell to ring to start Year 2.

"Anytime you have a year under your belt, you have something to work with. I'm very comfortable now," Wilfork said. "I'm comfortable with the defense, but we're still a long ways from where we're supposed to be, so we're working on it and we'll get there."

Christopher Price covers the Patriots for Boston Metro and BostonSportsReview.com. He can be reached at capeleaguer@hotmail.com.


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