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The Big Nickel: Focus on the New York running game, Wes Welker is back in the playoffs and wondering about Brandon Spikes

01.13.11 at 2:12 pm ET
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Vince Wilfork and the rest of the New England defense hits the field before Thursday's practice session. (AP)

The five most important things you need to know about the Patriots on Thursday:

1. The New England run defense took its fair share of criticism over the first half of the season — five of the first eight games, they allowed at least 99 yards per game, culminating with an alarming 230 rushing yards allowed in an ugly loss to Cleveland on Nov. 7.

Since the midway point, those numbers have improved. In four of the final eight games, opponents haven’t topped 80 rushing yards a game, as Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Chicago and Miami all struggled to formulate a sustained running attack against New England. The Patriots finished the regular season 11th in the league in rushing yards allowed per game (108) and total rushing yards allowed with 1,728.

The drop in the rushing numbers has been due to many things, including good complementary football — the fact that the Patriots’ offense has put up big numbers early in the game has forced opponents to try and throw the ball to get back into the contest. But according to Vince Wilfork, a good portion of it is also due to the fact that things have started to come together when it comes to stopping the run.

“I think everybody’s just been doing their job — focusing [on it], preparing a little bit more, watching more film,” Wilfork said on Thursday. “The more you play, the better you get. I’m a believer in the more reps you get in practice or in the game, the better you’ll be. And I think some of it came with that.

“Early on in the year, our run phase was kind of crazy. [I was] just seeing guys not understand the defense the way it needed to be played. So, as time went on, we got better and better and better. I think now, we’re sitting back and can say, ‘OK, we’ve gotten better, we have to continue to get better.’ We just can’t sit back and say, ‘Oh, we’re good.’ I think it’s just everyone knowing their role, knowing exactly where they need to be and when they need to be there and preparation.”

It’ll be another challenge for the Patriots’ run defense this week, as the Jets’ running attack was able to pile up big numbers throughout the regular season (sparked by the tandem of LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene, New York was third in the league in the regular season with 2,374 rushing yards and 148.4 yards per game), and added 169 rushing yards in their wild card win over Indianapolis.

“One of the best,” said Wilfork when asked about the New York running game. “You’ve got two great backs. They’re known for powering the rock. The offensive line is known for being physical. The New York Jets are known for having a great running attack.

“They are built for playoff games. They are pretty tough when it comes down to LT and Shonn Greene on top of that.”

2. A year ago, Wes Welker sat and watched as his teammates endured one of the most humiliating playoff defeats in franchise history. The receiver, who suffered a devastating knee injury in the regular-season finale against the Texans, was in a luxury box watching the loss to the Ravens.

Now, Welker is preparing for his first playoff action in three seasons.

“It was tough. It was definitely hard to watch, especially the way the game went last year,” said Welker. “I’m definitely excited to be out there. These are the type of games you play for, and this is what you spend all year getting ready for. You just want to go out there and put your best foot forward.”

Welker, who has 27 catches for 213 yards and two touchdowns in three postseason games (all of them with the 2007 Patriots), says that very little needs to be said when it comes to telling rookies how much the game changes in the postseason.

“You’re just definitely excited about the opportunity to get out there and have some fun and get in a playoff atmosphere,” he said. “This is what it’s all about. This is where you want to get to.”

The Patriots appear to present a lot of matchup challenges for the Jets in the passing game, with questions about how New York is going to deploy Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis. Welker said Thursday he saw “quite a bit” of Revis when the Patriots and Jets faced each other last month, especially when New York went to man coverage, and it sounds like he wouldn’t be surprised to see him again on Sunday afternoon.

“You have to bring it every play, because he’s a great player. He’s got great feet. He moves around real well and does some good things out there,” Welker said of Revis. “He gets his hands on you pretty well and understands what you’re trying to do to him. He’s definitely a tough guy to set up and get open against. You have to be on top of your game and make sure that you’re doing everything possible to get open against him.”

3. The only player missing during the media portion of Patriots practice on Thursday was defensive lineman Myron Pryor, and it’s becoming evident that the second-year lineman out of Kentucky probably won’t be able to go this weekend against the Jets. Hindered by a back problem over the second half of the season, he was a no-show for seven of the last eight games because of the injury, and he didn’t practice Wednesday.

When it came to the media portion of practice on Thursday, one other thing worth noting was that linebacker Brandon Spikes was wearing a yellow pinney, usually a sign that a player is going to be working with the scout team for a portion of practice. Spikes is scheduled to make his return to game action this week after sitting out the previous four games because of a violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. In his place, the Patriots have mostly used Gary Guyton at the spot.

4. There’s no such thing as a stupid question. It’s a philosophy that this year’s rookie class has taken to heart, according to many of the veterans.

“They do ask a lot of questions,” said second-year safety Pat Chung of the 2010 rookie class.

Of course, sometimes the veterans don’t even wait for the questions to be asked.

“I might be kind of shy about asking [Vince Wilfork] something, but he’ll tell me before I ask him,” said rookie defensive lineman Kyle Love. “Yeah, he can sense it. He knows.”

Many veterans said Thursday that the current group of rookies haven’t played like rookies, at least over the second half of the season.

“I feel [Devin] McCourty and those guys came in like rookie veterans. They pay attention, attention to detail, they listen to coach, [and] they work hard,” Chung said. “They came in with that mentality like, ‘I’m going to work hard and we’ve not made it yet.’ We still haven’t made it yet. People in the league for five years still haven’t made it. It’s just all keep working and never get complacent and those guys do that.”

“Over the year, it’s kind of the way it goes. Guys start to mature. They start to understand things,” Welker said. “They start to understand what the coaches want and get more comfortable with what they’re doing. That’s huge. Especially in the second half of the season, having these young guys do that is big and they’ve really grown a lot. I think it’s really helped our offense.”

According to Wilfork, this group of rookies — particularly those along the defensive line — know that now, it’s all about taking care of your business.

“You don’t wake up every morning and have to go to a class. You are waking up [and] going to work,” Wilfork said. “I think all year it’s been – at times it may be tough – but they’ve understood early what this game was all about. This is business. We expect for you to be on time. We expect for you to know what you’re doing on the field.

“I think all of our rookies and all of our young guys have done a great job with it this year. The quicker you can establish what you’re here for, the better you’ll be. And I think those guys established early on what exactly they were here for and that’s to help us win ball games. They’ve done a pretty good job with that.”

5. Wearing an Oregon football t-shirt, Chung talked Thursday morning about how the current group of defensive backs have come together in a relatively short time to create a cohesive unit.

“That comes from playing 20 games,” Chung said. “You play 20 games, you have no choice but to get a little more comfortable with the guys that you’re playing with, a little more experienced as the game slows down. You become a family.

“You know it like you can depend on these guys. You’ve been playing with them for 20 games now. I can look at Brandon, and he’ll just nod his head and I’m like, ‘OK, you’re good.’ I know what he’s thinking and that just comes with experience. It gets better the longer the season goes with any team.”

It has been a very good year for the New England secondary, especially for a group that lost No. 1 cornerback Leigh Bodden before the start of the season. As a group, they have far exceeded expectations. The Patriots led the NFL with 25 picks on the season, with 19 of them coming from the defensive backs. Chung, in his second season, credits the work of James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather — the two senior members of the secondary — as being stabilizing influences for the rest of the defensive backs.

“They’ve been here. They know what’s going on,” Chung said of Sanders and Meriweather. “They’re still young in a sense. We’re extremely young, but we still look up to them. They know what’s going on, but we have great coaches around us, [so] it’s a lot easier.”

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