FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Vince Wilfork likes to tangle in the trenches with big running backs. He’ll face one of the biggest on Sunday.
The next load charging at the 330-pound defensive tackle of the New England Patriots will be 240-pound Steven Jackson of the St. Louis Rams, a durable player who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of the last seven seasons.
The Rams “can line up and run the ball three straight times, four straight times, if they’re successful doing it,” Wilfork said Thursday before the Patriots red-eye flight to London for the game. “They have no problem putting the ball in their running backs’ hands to get tough yards, or even a long distance.”
Jackson is not having one of his better years. He’s just 20th in the NFL with 380 yards rushing, a pace that would give him 869 yards for the season. And he didn’t score his first touchdown until last Sunday’s 30-20 loss to the Green Bay Packers.
He’s only faced the Patriots once, when he was a rookie and gained one yard on three carries. But they know his size makes him dangerous.
“He’s a big guy,” New England defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. “He’s strong. When you have some size and speed it definitely makes it a lot harder to tackle somebody. So you’ve just got to make sure that you really get your hat on him.”
The Patriots pass defense has gotten most of the attention, a lot of it negative. It has been vulnerable to big plays and has allowed the fourth most yards passing in the league. Opponents’ eagerness to exploit that could be one reason they haven’t rolled up big rushing numbers. Only seven teams have given up more yards on the ground than the Patriots.
Or maybe the Patriots have very talented run stuffers.
“We really pride ourselves on stopping the run first,” Ninkovich said. “As long as you do that and kind of make the game more one-dimensional it’s just going to help your defense in the long run.”
So far the Patriots have faced six of the NFL’s top 16 runners with only one rushing for more than 54 yards. That was Ray Rice, who gained 101 in the Baltimore Ravens’ 31-30 win.
Last Sunday, the Patriots held Shonn Greene of the New York Jets to 54 yards on 16 carries one week after he rushed for a career-high 161. In their previous game, they limited Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks to 41 yards on 15 carries, one week before he gained 103. And in the game before that, the Patriots kept Willie McGahee of the Denver Broncos to 51 yards on 14 carries one week after he ran for 112.
There are more impressive numbers.
Opponents have averaged 3.3 yards per carry, second fewest in the NFL. They’ve scored three touchdowns on the ground and have only 10 runs of more than 10 yards. The Patriots are averaging 4.2 yards with 10 touchdowns and 28 carries of more than 10 yards.
Last year, the Patriots gave up 4.6 yards per rush, tied for eighth most.
Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo are two reasons for the new stinginess. What are some others?
“I’m a young buck. I’m not here to talk about that,” rookie first-round linebacker Dont’a Hightower said. “I’m doing my role and my role is to hit the dude with the ball. So that’s what I’m doing. So as long as I do that and Vince and Mayo, they’re not yelling at me, I feel like I’m doing my job.”
The Patriots also must contend with Daryl Richardson, whose 282 yards rank third among NFC rookies.
But the physical Jackson is the most dangerous.
“He dishes it out. I think he probably gives as much as he takes,” New England coach Bill Belichick said. “It’s not like that with all backs, but he has the quickness to be elusive on the second level, avoid guys and he’s also got the power to put his shoulder down and run through guys. He’s a hard guy to tackle.
“His production in the passing game is very good too. Not just screens, but actual route running, going out there, getting open, beating linebackers and he’s a great target for the quarterback to throw to. He’s not a little 5-8 guy you’re trying to find out there. He’s a big, tall, strong guy that has a lot of range and a big catch radius and good hands.”
Jackson has only 10 receptions this year but had at least 38 in each of the past seven. His 90 catches in 2006 were tied for seventh in the league and were the most by a running back that year.
In the runup to the 2004 draft, Belichick recalled, he spent nearly a full day with the running back from Oregon State.
“He’s a very impressive individual. Obviously, a big, strong kid that runs well, that catches the ball very well, very good in the passing game,” Belichick said. “He definitely was a guy that we were very much interested in.”
But he was gone by the time the Patriots, who won the previous Super Bowl, made the last pick of the first round.
“He was an impressive guy coming out,” Belichick said, “and he’s had, obviously, an outstanding career.”