Saturday, October 31, 2009

Myron Pryor emerges as a force

Vince Wilfork played each of the Patriots' first four defensive snaps against Tampa Bay last Sunday, doing what he normally does in the middle of the defensive line. When a rush for no gain set up a third-and-4, Wilfork headed for the sidelines to make way for rookie Myron Pryor.

It was Pryor, then, and not Wilfork, who was right in the middle of the defensive line when quarterback Josh Johnson unloaded a hurried pass -- a pass intercepted and returned for a touchdown by safety Brandon Meriweather.

The Patriots drafted Pryor in the sixth round of April's draft, making him the 207th player selected overall. More than half of the players drafted in the sixth round in April -- 19 of the 36, to be specific -- have yet to make an appearance in an NFL game. Pryor, who was the third-to-last pick in the sixth round, played last week as the Patriots' primary third-down nose tackle and backup to Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork.

Wilfork hasn't played nose tackle much on third down all season. The Patriots have kept him off the field on third down quite a bit all year in part to play to his strengths and in part to keep him fresh. Where they haven't been as consistent, though, is how they've replaced him on those snaps. It's interesting, in fact, to see who's replaced him on the Patriots' first third-down defensive snap in their last three games:

Broncos: Mike Wright lined up between Tully Banta-Cain and Derrick Burgess as the Patriots played three defensive linemen and six defensive backs;
Titans: Wilfork lined up alongside Pryor between Banta-Cain and Burgess as the Patriots went with four defensive linemen and five defensive backs;
Buccaneers: Pryor lined up between Banta-Cain and Burgess as the Patriots went with three defensive linemen and six defensive backs.

Wright has the versatility to play anywhere along the Patriots' defensive line and took most of the snaps at nose tackle on third down earlier this season -- especially back when the Patriots were playing primarily a 4-3 defense. When Wilfork sat down on third downs earlier this season, it often was Wright who took his spot in a nickel or dime defense. The fifth-year veteran had his best game against the Baltimore Ravens, finishing with two sacks and two quarterback hurries in a game in which Wilfork still seemed to be limited by his ankle injury.

The play of Wright was no small factor in the impressive first month the Patriots' defense enjoyed.

But Wright didn't see nearly as much time against Tampa Bay as he had earlier in the season. Pryor seemed to be usurping his snaps. Let's piggyback off the work of ESPNBoston's Mike Reiss by breaking down the defensive snaps per game of Pryor and Wright since the season began:

Bills: Wright 18 snaps, Pryor 0 (inactive)
Jets: Wright 51, Pryor 3
Falcons: Pryor 27, Wright 26
(That was the game in which Wilfork injured his ankle; Pryor played every snap at nose tackle in the aftermath of the Wilfork injury.)
Ravens: Wright 38, Pryor 19
Broncos: Wright 58, Pryor 28
Titans: Wright 27, Pryor 24
Buccaneers: Pryor 26, Wright 15

Oh, and wouldn't you know it: The game in London was the first game in which Pryor had a positive rating. (Note to self: Do a little more research on the way hands out its ratings before using it too extensively.)

The Tampa Bay game could be an anomaly. But while Belichick doesn't like to hint at the way his depth chart stacks up, his division of labor doesn't lie. Pryor is light years ahead of second-round draft pick Ron Brace and seems to be turning into just the third-down nose tackle to fit the Patriots' defensive scheme.

With the next month a make-or-break month for the Patriots' dreams of a first-round bye in the playoffs, it'll be very interesting to see how much the Patriots' rookie nose tackle can keep progressing.

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