FOXBOROUGH -- In the Patriots' defense, coach Bill Belichick admits, nose tackle is especially difficult. To the man who plays that position, it's more than that.
``To be honest with you," Vince Wilfork said before practice Wednesday, ``it all surrounds the nose tackle."
Humility, it seems, is not part of Wilfork's demeanor, but if his job is as tough as he says it is, perhaps there is just no room for it.
``The defense doesn't work without a nose," he said. ``So you have to be on your toes. You have to know what you're doing out there. You have to be smart. You have to be tough. Because sometimes you're taking on two or three blockers. Sometimes you've got one hand on the ground, a knee on the ground, and two people pushing you.
``So you have to be tough, mentally and physically, in this defense as a nose tackle. I mean, I'm all for it. I'm a hands-on type of guy. I like contact. I love contact. It doesn't bother me. I was born to be a defensive player."
Wilfork admits he's still learning, with the peak of his education coming halfway through last season. His first half had been lackluster. He had started the season with an aggressive attitude, saying he wanted to ``be dominating" and ``just push people over."
His plan failed -- his aggression was too much, too obvious to opponents. When Wilfork would charge forward, centers would often ``snatch" him down, others would simply jump out of the way, letting Wilfork's own momentum beat him. The overly aggressive approach also kept Wilfork from getting good reads on what was happening around him.
Finally, during the Patriots' bye week in mid-October, Belichick stepped in.
``[Bill] told me, `Hey, it's not working, so this is what we're going to do,' " Wilfork said. ``Basically, from then on, I put my head down, and we went forward. It definitely helped me. Bill, he knows what he's talking about. I'm not going to question him, and I didn't. I just took the criticism, and I rolled with it [and] became a better player."
He not only became better, he got immediate results, recording eight solo tackles in a 21-16 win over Buffalo Oct. 30. He had 13 in the first six games of the season.
Wilfork took a completely different approach after his talk with Belichick. He relaxed, stopped focusing on tearing his opponents apart, and, most importantly, backed up from the ball before the snap, sometimes more than a yard, to get better reads.
``There probably isn't another position on the field, there certainly isn't in our defense, where a guy can be attacked that quickly from as many different angles as the nose can," said Belichick. ``So [Wilfork's] ability to read those things, react to them quickly, be in the right spot, and still play with strength and leverage and quickness, and not be caught off balance or caught guessing or misreading the play, that's really what a lot of that position is about.
``What experience at that position can provide a player is his ability to react as quickly as those things are happening. There's a lot going on. I'd say that's been Vince's biggest step, reacting to [things] quickly and being able to recognize the offense's attempt to disguise [things] and make them look the same, and then have to differentiate between them. It's really hard."
Wilfork's new method continued to work for him -- he finished the season with 40 solo tackles, up from 27 in 2004 -- and it's still working.
In the Patriots' 30-3 exhibition win over the Cardinals last Saturday, Wilfork set the tone on New England's first defensive play. In the 3-4 defense, Wilfork was matched up against Arizona center Alex Stepanovich. The handoff went to Edgerrin James on the left side and Wilfork bulldozed Stepanovich about 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage and right into James, who lunged ahead for a 2-yard gain.
``There were some things we saw on film that gave us a good edge on when they're running the ball and where they're running the ball to, so I just played my keys," Wilfork said. ``I played my keys and came out looking pretty good.
``If I can go forth from that, that's the hardest part, to go forth from there, because once you get into the season, teams are going to try to block you differently, you're going to have different teams day in and day out."
Belichick credited Wilfork with being much quicker than guys who are much smaller, a strength Wilfork takes pride in. Still, he's constantly trying to get better and work on his technique. Something that's helped is watching film of other nose tackles, such as Cleveland's Ted Washington, who played for New England in 2003, Pittsburgh's Casey Hampton, and San Diego's Jamal Williams.
Another thing Wilfork has learned is to look out for his teammates, making sure they don't make the same mistakes he did.
``With the young guys in now," Wilfork said, ``I tell them quick, `You know, back up off the ball to get your reads. It won't hurt you. You're big and strong, you need to see what's going on.' That's the easiest way to learn -- back up off the ball."