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Friday, December 18, 2009
Updated: December 20, 10:27 AM ET
Pats' backup linemen could get call

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

Note: This analysis was written before the Patriots announced their downgrades for Sunday's game against Buffalo. Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren are out.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the Patriots visit the Bills on Sunday, it will be surprising if defensive linemen Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren are on the field. The writing seems to be on the locker room wall.

Wilfork and Warren, two of the Patriots' toughest players, are hurting. Wilfork's injured foot kept him out of practice all week, while Warren's injured ankle sidelined him as well. Both are officially questionable.

While coach Bill Belichick left open the possibility Friday that both could suit up despite not practicing, that seems optimistic.

So unless there is a surprise, the question is less about whether Wilfork and Warren will play, and more about how the Patriots will fill their sizable void. If there is a silver lining, it helps that they are going up against one of the NFL's weaker offensive lines.

Myron Pryor
Myron Pryor is one possibility to replace Vince Wilfork on Sunday if necessary.

"Still, that would really hurt them, to be without those two guys," said former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson. "The thing with Ty and Vince is that they hold the line of scrimmage and are strong at the point of attack. When you're back there at linebacker, you can't have the defensive linemen pushed back into you, and those guys don't get pushed back."

Johnson, whose forte was stopping the run from his middle linebacker spot, felt the nose tackle position was so important to his success that he offered a unique incentive to Ted Washington during the 2003 season. He promised the big, burly nose tackle a big steak dinner if he kept opposing offensive linemen off him, allowing him to make plays more easily.

Needless to say, Washington was well fed on Johnson's tab that year.

Wilfork, who enters the final year of his contract, has the same type of impact on the Patriots' defense. If the team is without him Sunday as expected, it will be a sneak preview of what life could be like next year.

The candidates to replace him Sunday are rookies Myron Pryor (6-foot-1, 310 pounds) and Ron Brace (6-3, 330), and first-year player Titus Adams (6-4, 305).

Adams, who was promoted from the practice squad Dec. 9, was the top backup last week, a decision due in part to Pryor's being ruled out with a chest injury. Furthermore, Adams' versatility at nose and end put him a cut above Brace in a backup role.

Yet just because Adams was the top backup against the Panthers doesn't mean he'd necessarily step in for Wilfork this week. Pryor, whose technique has been lauded by Belichick at times this year, would be a more likely candidate if healthy.

And now might be the time to finally turn to Brace, the second-round draft choice (40th overall) who has played sparingly this year. Footwork has been one issue holding Brace back, and coaches will need to assess how they feel pitting him against veteran center Geoff Hangartner, who is probably the Bills' best offensive lineman.

That Hangartner is the best the Bills have to offer speaks to the shaky situation on their line, and might lessen the blow if the Patriots are without Wilfork and Warren. Just as the Patriots would be working with backups on their defensive line -- five-year veteran Mike Wright projects to fill in for Warren at left end -- the Bills are in the same situation in several spots on their offensive line.

Wilfork's and Warren's statuses should become clearer by late Saturday.

There was some hope that maybe both players would be game-time decisions. Yet based on the writing on the locker room wall, it would be a surprise at this point if they even make the trip.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.