FOXBORO - Patriots' fans got a preview of the worst-case scenario along the defensive front when, on Aug. 22, rookie Joe Vellano started a preseason game in Detroit in place of Vince Wilfork.
At the time, it was seen as little more than a rest for the 10th-year veteran. But this past Sunday, Vellano was thrust into the role of Wilfork's possible successor - for the remainder of this year, at least.
When Wilfork tore the Achilles' tendon in his right foot early in the nationally televised game against Atlanta, Vellano was the "next man up." And he played accordingly, registering his first career sack as well as three tackles and one quarterback hit in the 30-23 win by the Patriots at the Georgia Dome.
The rookie from Maryland knows he will have big shoes to fill, figuratively and literally.
"Obviously, Vince is irreplaceable, one of the best guys at the position and a leader, especially in our D-line room and, obviously, on this team and on our defense," Vellano said Wednesday. "So no question that he still will be a leader. You couldn't look up to a better guy and he's been nothing but the best.
"I'm really just trying to increase my role on the team and do whatever is needed for me, whatever Coach (Bill Belichick) wants with this scheme and really go from there, just trying to work hard every day," he said.
Vellano was one of the surprises of training camp, an unheralded and undrafted rookie that had to overcome that disappointment to turn the coaching staff's heads once invited to the Patriots' preseason camp.
"The biggest thing was you just wanted to get on the field," Vellano said of his undrafted status, "and football is kind of its own animal. So it gets hard out there. There's a lot of mental (adjustment), more than physical, so I just tried to work hard every day and you never know what's going to happen. I'm trying to make the best of it."
As an undrafted rookie new to the roster, Vellano could not have asked for a better role model and mentor than Wilfork.
"(It's) his preparation on the field, off the field, day in and day out really, and the way he handles the games and goes in there," Vellano said. "He's one of the best guys but also he's probably one of the smartest guys that you ever play around.
"You can't learn enough from him," he said. "He's miles ahead of everybody so you're trying to just pick up here and there and just try to gradually pick up his knowledge."
Vellano said he was also helped considerably in the Atlanta game by the player that has the locker next to him in Foxboro, former Oakland Raider Tommy Kelly.
"The biggest thing is that those guys are very consistent day in and day out, which is the biggest thing you need at D-line," Vellano said. "And they play blocks the right way every time."
Vellano is listed as 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds by the team, which may be a little generous. He certainly would be eclipsed by the 6-foot-2, 325-pound (suspected to be a forgiving estimate) Wilfork if solely based upon the eyeball test. One way or another, he might seem smallish for the nose tackle's position, so he tries to use brains over brawn to get the job done.
"You know what kind of blocks you're going to get," he said. "If you know what play you're going to get, it takes the thinking out of it. You can play to that block, and if you know what's coming at you, it makes it a lot easier.
"It's kind of your awareness and know what to expect, and know what kind of angle you're going to get," he said. "You can put yourself in the best situation and best position."
Vellano's first career sack (of Atlanta's Matt Ryan) came in the third quarter with the Patriots clinging to a 13-10 lead. He dropped Ryan for a 13-yard loss on a first-down play from the Patriots' 47-yard line.
"I was just kind of glad that the hard work paid off and that I know I can make plays," he said. "So it's definitely something you just want to get more of. The biggest thing is just to play the scheme that we do and do your job the best you can."
Vellano didn't have a sack dance prepared, and he heard about that from his teammates.
"The guys were all getting after me, and the next day they said I should have had a move ready or something," he said.
Now, he'll have the time to perfect not only his rushes to the quarterback, but also his responses.