Filling in for Wilfork; Pats turn to Vellano, Jones after key injury.
FOXBORO -- Vince Wilfork is a five-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman who is a nightmare for opposing offenses. He's also a dream teammate, someone who has been voted captain six years running by his Patriot peers.
But Wilfork is undoubtedly out for the season after tearing his right Achilles tendon in Sunday's win over the Atlanta Falcons. He had surgery Tuesday and is expected to need a minimum of six months to return to full health, his streak of 59 consecutive starts over.
"Vince was the rock in there, man,'' safety Steve Gregory said Wednesday as the players returned to work after getting the past two days off. "He's a heck of a football player and a big loss for our team.''
But quarterback Tom Brady -- unfortunately from personal experience -- is well aware the games go on no matter who is or isn't available.
"The train keeps moving,'' he said. "No one feels sorry for the Patriots. We have to keep fighting on, just as Vince would want us to do. He wants us to go out there and play well, and he'll encourage us.
"There are big shoes to fill, literally and figuratively, because he's such a unique talent and player and person, but we have to still go out there and try to win games.''
Next up for the 4-0 Patriots is their first trip to Cincinnati in six years to face the 2-2 Bengals on Sunday. As for Wilfork's replacement -- or, rather, replacements as it'll be a committee approach -- it's next man up for the likes of rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones.
Vellano made the Patriots' initial 53-man roster as an undrafted rookie out of Maryland and had quietly performed in a reserve role in the first three games, efficiently spelling Wilfork and Tommy Kelly at tackle, before playing a season-high 33 snaps against the Falcons due to Wilfork's departure.
He has 10 tackles, including two for a loss, and a sack, which came against Atlanta.
The blue-collar Vellano didn't celebrate his first QB takedown in the NFL and got some good-natured ribbing from his teammates afterward, but the significance of the moment wasn't lost on him.
"I'm just kind of glad that hard work paid off and you know you can make plays,'' he said. "It's something you want to get more of, but I think the biggest thing is just to play the scheme that we do and do your job the best you can.''
Vellano is listed at 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds, which puts him on the small side for interior defensive linemen at the pro level. He compensates with a quick first step, strong fundamentals and a good mental grasp for what the opposition is trying to do through film study and being coached up.
"It's kind of your awareness and to know what to expect or who's coming at you and what angle you're going to get so you can put yourself in the best position,'' Vellano said. "You have to be a technician in there. You have to have your awareness up higher.
"It's a lot to go through, and it takes a long time to get good at, so I'm just doing the best I can here to help us win.''
Vellano has played 40 percent of the defensive snaps to date, and because of his lack of bulk, the Patriots might decide not to appreciably up his workload for fear of fatigue setting in and an ensuing decline in productivity. That's where Jones comes in, giving coach Bill Belichick another option to help fill Wilfork's rather large cleats.
The 6-2, 309-pound Bowling Green alum made his NFL debut Sunday and participated in 20 plays, assisting on one tackle.
"I just went in there and played football,'' Jones said. "I practiced the whole week and did what I did in practice in the game. You don't take any reps off, and that's how you get better. I plan on doing that in Cincinnati, too.''
Jones, the 2012 Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year, was originally drafted by the Texans in the sixth round (198th overall) before being released Aug. 31. He was claimed by the Buccaneers the next day and cut the next week, finally landing in New England on Sept. 11.
"There were some down times, obviously being rejected so many times,'' Jones said. "But I'm here now, and I'm happy in my situation right now.''
Contact Rich Garven at firstname.lastname@example.org.