Wilfork in the middle of Patriots' improving defense

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Wilfork in the middle of Patriots' improving defense

FOXBORO -- They certainly aren't the 1985 Bears. And they have a long way to go to compare to the Patriots of the early aughts. But things are starting to turn for New England's defense.

In the last two weeks, in wins over the Jets and Colts, the Patriots have forced nine turnovers. Three have gone for touchdowns, including Steve Gregory's scoop-and-score from 32 yards out on Thanksgiving.

It may not be a shut-down unit, but the Patriots have won in recent weeks thanks in part to its defense, not despite it. Count Vince Wilfork among those encouraged by his team's improvement on that side of the ball.

"That's our goal," Wilfork said. "Each week we say we wanna get better as a unit. Over the past couple weeks you've seen a lot of guys make plays for this football team. Right now it's a one-game season. You really have to buckle down, start playing our best football. We've seen that we can play very well when we execute well. I think everybody individually is stepping their game up to help this ball club."

As it's been for the better part of the last decade, Wilfork has led the way when it comes to players elevating their games. His numbers don't do his dominance justice (6 tackles in the last two games combined), but his presence in the middle of the Patriots defensive line has been immense.

In the second quarter, he twice handled double teams to help the Patriots stop the Jets on third- and fourth-and-short plays, the latter resulting in a fumble. On Gregory's touchdown scamper, Wilfork was the one who shoved Jets guard Brandon Moore into quarterback Mark Sanchez to knock the ball loose. In New England's third-quarter goal-line stand against the Jets on Thanksgiving, he blew up the hole and allowed Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo to make the stop on Shonn Greene.

Wilfork also played well against Indianapolis, helping pressure Andrew Luck into throwing an interception to new cornerback Aqib Talib, which was returned for a touchdown.

Raising his level of play late in the season is something Wilfork has always taken pride in.

"My whole career -- high school, college -- it seems like the longer the season goes, the better I play," Wilfork said. "Nine years now with the Patriots, same thing. I just prepare well. Sometimes I make some adjustments in games in weeks, sometimes I don't make plays, sometimes I make a lot of plays. But my thing is to be the best I can be for my team. Whether that's making one tackle or that's making 10 tackles. I really don't care about that. My goal is always do what I do best and do what I can to help this ball club.

"Sometimes on the stat sheet it doesn't show, but as long as my teammates are making plays, and some things we put in as a defense, sometimes it's not meant for me to make plays. But as long as we winning and I'm playing well, I'm satisfied with that."

If the rest of the Patriots defense can keep pace with its big man in the middle, they should be in good shape for the last quarter of the season. The quest for continued progress resumes on Sunday against the Dolphins, with a shot at a division title on the line.

"Our goal is to get better, be better, especially now," Wilfork said. "Play our best football. We haven't played our best yet. We still waiting for our best. Right now it's gonna be like a one game season from here on out. We gonna need everybody to be at their best."

If history's any indication, Wilfork will be.

Will the Harris signing mean more time on the edge for Hightower?

Will the Harris signing mean more time on the edge for Hightower?

David Harris is expected to be a savvy middle linebacker who will line up his teammates when they help. He's expected to provide some level of leadership, even in his first year in New England, as an accomplished-but-hungry 33-year-old who has not yet reached a Super Bowl. 

What Harris is not expected to do is improve the Patriots pass rush. He was in on one sack in 900 snaps last season.  

But in a roundabout way he might. 

MORE: How does Derek Carr's new deal impact Jimmy Garoppolo?

There are dominos to fall now that Harris has been added to Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia's defense. How much will Harris play, and whose playing time will he cut into? Those questions don't yet have answers, but one of the more intriguing elements of the Harris acquisition is how he will benefit Dont'a Hightower's game.

If Harris can pick up the Patriots defense quickly -- and all indications are that there should be few issues there -- he could take some of the all-important communication responsibilities off of Hightower's shoulders. 

Ever since taking the reins from Jerod Mayo as the team's signal-caller, Hightower has had to be on top of all requisite pre-snap checks and last-second alignment changes. It's a critical role, and one that Hightower performs well, but those duties place some added stress on the player wearing the green dot. Perhaps if part of that load can be heaped onto Harris' plate, that might allow Hightower to feel as though he's been freed up to focus on his individual assignments.

Harris' presence might also impact where on the field Hightower is used. Hightower may be the most versatile piece on a Patriots defense loaded with them, but with Harris in the middle, Hightower could end up playing more on the edge, where he's proven he can make a major impact (see: Super Bowl LI).

For Belichick and his staff, having the ability to use one of their best pass-rushers -- and one of the most efficient rushers league-wide, per Pro Football Focus -- on the edge more frequently has to be an enticing byproduct of the move to sign Harris. Especially since there are some question marks among the team's end-of-the-line defenders behind Trey Flowers and Rob Ninkovich. 

We'll have to wait for training camp before we have an idea of how exactly Harris fits in with the Patriots defense. But the effect he'll have on his new teammates, and Hightower in particular, will be fascinating to track.