Nose tackle certainly isn't one of the more glamorous positions on an NFL team. And one look at the behemoths who play that spot won't dissuade anyone of that impression. But when it comes to Super Bowl XLVI, the game between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots could very well be decided by a nose.
Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork -- all 327 pounds of him, as he is generously listed -- plays with a speed and agility that belie his size. The veteran defender is coming off a performance so dominant against running back Ray Rice and the Baltimore Ravens' run game that the NFL's second leading rusher was held to a mere 67 yards and an average of 3.2 yards per carry.
"I think Vince Wilfork is a game changer," Rice told The Huffington Post. "He changed the whole game. He changed the dynamic of our run game. You have to pick wisely when you run at that guy because he's very active on the defensive line."
Like the Ravens, New York relies on its running attack to set up a barrage of play-action passes. Giants quarterback Eli Manning has been stellar throwing the ball downfield this season, but much of his success can be traced to the re-emergence of running back Ahmad Bradshaw as the physically imposing and effective runner from last season. Like Rice, Bradshaw is a diminutive but fierce runner who excels between the tackles. Through the first three games of the postseason, Bradshaw has averaged 4.3 yards per carry, well over his regular season average of 3.9. As a result, Manning has been extra comfortable in his drops.
Wilfork's main purpose will be to shut him down early and therefore limit the effectiveness of play action.
"You look at a guy like Wilfork; he's low to the ground, he's not tall, but he's very powerful and he is quick," Rice said. "His size fools you at times, because you don't think he is going to move that fast. He can move."
For Wilfork and the Patriots, stopping the run leads to stopping the pass. In the last two games in which a Giant running back failed to rush for 60 yards, Manning combined for four interceptions and a quarterback rating of 53.5. New York split those games with the Jets and the Redskins, but the offense looked out of sync and completely off balance.
"They need to take what the defense gives them," Rice added. "If they have a five-yard completion, take it. New England has a 'bend, but don't break' defense. If you can get Wilfork blocked, than you have a chance in the run game."
But doing so is no easy task, especially this year, when the Miami product's total snap count is up to 86 percent from 70 percent, according to Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com. That number is notably high for a nose tackle, when for most it hovers around 50 percent. In essence, the more he plays, the better this defense becomes. Against Baltimore, Wilfork was on the field for a robust 67 of 70 snaps, during which the 30-year-old compiled six tackles, four hurries, three tackles for loss and a sack.
Expect that trend to continue on Sunday. In the three Patriot losses this season (including to the Giants), New England surrendered 5.2 yards per carry to starting running backs, along with two touchdowns.
"Vince Wilfork is a man," Pats owner Robert Kraft said after the AFC title game. "The kind of leader he is, we're so lucky to have him on this team."
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