FOXBOROUGH - Between the emergence of James Sanders and his own injury issues, Eugene Wilson has become almost a forgotten member of the Patriots' defense.
Yesterday, though, the fifth-year free safety gave a memorable performance.
Making his first start since Oct. 7 against the Browns, Wilson returned an interception for a touchdown and recovered a fumble, contributing to another solid defensive effort by the Patriots as they beat the Jets, 20-10, at wintry, wet, and windy Gillette Stadium.
Wilson's touchdown, which gave the Patriots their first points with 9:33 left in the first quarter, set off a snowball throwing celebration in the stands, a la the Miami game in 2003.
"You always want to come out and help your team," Wilson said. "I've had some injury problems, but when I get my chances, I try to get out there and do the best I can and it came out pretty good for me today."
Wilson played in place of Sanders, who missed the game with a knee injury. Wilson said he knew all week he would be starting against the Jets.
"That's what we do," cornerback Ellis Hobbs said. "Whoever's down, the next person steps in. Eugene's been in this position before, starting, and he's coming out there, getting back into the swing of things and I'm happy for him."
Wilson started the first five games of the season, but lost his starter's role to Sanders, who shifted from strong safety to free safety when Rodney Harrison came back from his four-game suspension. The Patriots had gone with the Harrison-Sanders starting safety combo for seven of the last eight games.
Before returning to action last week against the Steelers, Wilson had missed five straight games. The first three were because of an ankle injury, the last two, against the Eagles and Ravens, he's assumed to have been a healthy scratch because his name did not appear on the Patriots' injury report in the weeks leading up to the game. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees did say Friday that Wilson's health has affected his status.
Wilson played in just four games last season because of hamstring and groin injuries.
Willie Andrews and Kelley Washington combined to pin the Jets at their 3-yard line on a 41-yard punt by Chris Hanson early in the first quarter.
On second-and-9 from the 4, New York quarterback Kellen Clemens, back in the end zone and facing heavy pressure from Richard Seymour, chucked the ball to the left side of the field, right in Wilson's direction. He returned it 5 yards for his first career touchdown. Clemens was injured on the play and didn't return.
"It was a zone play, we got good pressure on the quarterback and he just kind of threw it out there," Wilson said. "I broke on the ball, caught it, and scored with it."
Wilson became the sixth Patriot to score a defensive touchdown this season. One of the players he joined in that group, cornerback Asante Samuel, told him just before the play, "that if you get a chance, be careful. It's slippery out there."
Wilson kept his footing and his touchdown made him the 21st Patriot to score a TD this season, tying the NFL record for most players scoring in a season.
In the third quarter, after Darrelle Revis picked off a Tom Brady pass and gave the Jets what looked like prime position at the New England 34, Wilson came up big again.
On third down, quarterback Chad Pennington completed a 10-yard pass to tight end Chris Baker, but linebacker Adalius Thomas forced a fumble. Wilson recovered it and returned it 4 yards.
"I know [Baker] was holding it loose," Wilson said. "I was hoping somebody would hit it and it just kept popping. I was like, 'Oh, here we go.' I picked it up and tried to get what I could."
It was Wilson's fourth career fumble recovery.
Wilson was called for pass interference on a Pennington pass attempt to Justin McCareins in the third quarter. The 13-yard penalty put the Jets at their 49, but New York punted four plays later.
Wilson was smiling after the game, and his teammates were happy about his performance, too.
"Eugene's been a starter his whole career," Harrison said. "It's the depth we have. Eugene coming back, being healthy - he's been my guy back there with me for so many years and I'm happy to see that he came in and he made plays."