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The Big Nickel: Wisdom from Vince Wilfork, the secret of turnovers and how Devin McCourty was almost a Jet

12.02.10 at 2:07 pm ET
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FOXBORO ‘€” The five most important things you need to know about the Patriots on Thursday:

1. Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork only occasionally speaks with the media during the week, but he talked with reporters for awhile on Thursday, and one of the topics was the fact that New England is 31st in the league in total defense (yielding an average of 399.1 total yards per game) and 32nd in the league in pass defense (having allowed an average of 288.5 passing yards per game).

‘€œI don’€™t pay attention to that. The important part is winning,’€ Wilfork said. ‘€œWe’€™re 9-2, and there are a lot of teams that have pretty good defenses out there, and their records don’€™t show that. I don’€™t care about stats. The main stats for me is winning. However you can win, that’€™s what it’€™s all about. People can say what they want to say about this team. About the defense, the people we have here. We just … the only thing we’€™re trying to do is win. Point blank. If that calls for us to be the 32nd defense in the league, then it is what it is.

‘€œAt the end of the day, Sunday ‘€” this week, Monday ‘€” we want to make sure we do everything we can to walk away with a W. Every week, that’€™s our goal. To win. Good teams find a way to win. The Jets are a great team. They’€™ve shown they’€™ve blown out people. They’€™ve won close games. OT. They’€™ve been challenged and they’€™ve always [risen] to the occasion. That team, we’€™re going to have our hands full. We’€™ll have our hands with them. By the same token, we’€™re at home. Out there, they beat us. Hopefully, we can turn that around this week.’€

On that same point: A little later on, Patriots coach Bill Belichick was asked if it ‘€œembarrassed’€ him that, being a defensive coach, New England was 31st in the league in total defense. ‘€œWe play to win the games,’€ said Belichick, channeling his inner Herm Edwards. ‘€œThat’€™s what our goal is.’€

2. As expected, quarterback Tom Brady was on the field for the start of practice on Thursday. The only players who were not out there have all been dogged by injury over the last few weeks ‘€” cornerback Jonathan Wilhite (hip), offensive lineman Stephen Neal (shoulder), defensive lineman Myron Pryor (back) and defensive lineman Mike Wright (neck/concussion). With no Pryor and Wright, the Patriots are a little thin along the defensive line. In addition, no Wilhite means more reps at corner for Darius Butler, while Dan Connolly will presumably get more time at right guard if Neal continues to be sidelined.

3. The Patriots and Jets are two of the best teams in the league when it comes to takeaways, with New England tied for the AFC lead with the Steelers at plus-11, and New York tied for third at plus-seven. When these two teams met earlier in the season, it represented the low point in the turnover department for the Patriots ‘€” Brady threw a pair of picks and lost a fumble in the 28-14 loss.

Since then, Brady and New England have been excellent at taking care of the football ‘€” the quarterback has only thrown two picks since then, both in an October win over Baltimore. What did the Jets do in that game that other teams might not be doing when it comes to forcing turnovers against the Patriots.

‘€œThey made some good plays in that game. Antonio Cromartie is really a ballhawk. He’€™s got great hands and ball skills, great awareness. Darrelle Revis is an incredible corner. He’€™s a real dynamic playmaker for them too. Jason Taylor strip-sacked me,’€ Brady said. ‘€œI think they put a lot of pressure on you with their scheme. Their blitzing scheme is a very heavy blitz scheme on all downs and distances. They create a lot of different ways to cause confusion with the quarterback and with the offense. They make it tough on you ‘€” you’€™ve got to get the ball into tight spots. They’€™re covering guys pretty tightly. You have to do a good job getting open and delivering the ball.’€

‘€œI know it’€™s rare,’€ Jets coach Rex Ryan said Thursday when asked about the three turnovers they forced against the Patriots. ‘€œBrady, I think it was the first time in all the Jets games that the Jets have ever had two interceptions in a game against [him]. We just do what we do. We play our style of football. We’€™re a pretty decent group on defense. We don’€™t have to take a backseat to anybody’€™s defense. We think we have the best defense in football.’€

4. Devin McCourty was almost a Jet. Wrap your head around that one for a second. Ryan said the Patriots’€™ first-round pick in 2010, who was taken 27th overall by New England, was on New York’€™s radar screen, and if the Patriots hadn’€™t taken him, would have forced the Jets into making a very difficult decision between McCourty and Kyle Wilson.

‘€œFor us it was Kyle Wilson and McCourty ‘€” both those guys,’€ Ryan said Thursday. ‘€œIf either one of them would had been there, we would have taken them. And obviously, Kyle was there and McCourty wasn’€™t, and so we took Kyle.

‘€œWe really liked both of them,’€ Ryan added. ‘€œBut I think we would have taken Kyle because I think his … we were looking for man-cover skill type of thing, but I can tell you this ‘€” we liked both of them. They are both like … we had several coaches want McCourty, some coaches wanted Kyle Wilson. It was that close. They were touching each other, so. I think it was Kyle, but I’€™m not 100 percent sure on that.’€

After the Patriots took McCourty at No. 27, the Jets went with Boise State’€™s Wilson at No. 29, and the rest is history. Wilson, who has served mostly as a backup for Revis and Cromartie, has 20 tackles through 11 games as a rookie. Meanwhile, McCourty has started all 11 games and has 60 tackles and five interceptions.

McCourty, who said he’€™s good friends with Wilson, said he hasn’€™t had time to think what life would have been like if he was with the Jets instead of the Patriots.

‘€œI don’€™t know about that,’€ McCourty said on Thursday. ‘€œI just know how it is to be a Patriot.’€

5. The post-Thanksgiving stretch begins in earnest this week for the Patriots, opening the most important regular-season series of the year. It’€™s something that’€™s always been stressed by Brady and Belichick ‘€” over the last 10 years, the franchise remains one of the best in the league when it comes to games after Dec. 1.

‘€œOne thing I know is football starts now,’€ Wilfork said. ‘€œWe have to be able to play some good football in December and January. And it started last week with Detroit and the week before that, it started with Indy. It doesn’€™t get any easier for us. Whatever we need to do to get going Monday, we need to start that today. Not Monday, because I’€™m pretty sure those guys over there, they’€™re at work. What we want to do is come out and match their intensity. If we can’€™t do that, it’€™ll be a long day for us.’€

It’€™s a message that has been received by many of the rookies.

‘€œThe veterans keep talking about that after Thanksgiving is where the season start to pick up and it’€™s important to be plating well around that time,’€ McCourty said. ‘€œSo I’€™m really trying to focus on getting better right now and playing good.’€

‘€œDefinitely. It’€™s coming down to the end of the season, and every team is pushing for a race to the playoffs,’€ said tight end Rob Gronkowski. ‘€œEveryone needs to be on the top of their game to get a shot for the playoffs. It’€™s important to be playing your best ball after Thanksgiving.’€

Read More: antonio cromartie, Bill Belichick, Dan Connolly, Darius Butler
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