When Wilfork left, undrafted rookie Joe Vellano stepped in and got a sack. And Chris Jones, cut by Houston and Tampa Bay after the Texans drafted him in the sixth round this year, saw his first action with the Patriots. So they're thin at defensive tackle behind the other starter, Tommy Kelly.
"He has good instincts, kind of has a nose for the ball and a good feel for what's going on," Belichick said of Vellano. "He's still got a long way to go but definitely making progress."
Jones, he said, is "just overall getting familiar with what we do, our calls, his assignments, block reactions. All those kind of things have gotten better over the last couple weeks."
But no one plays quite like Wilfork, a defensive captain Belichick calls "a great leader." His 325-pound frame demands double teams, opening up space for teammates to make tackles. And he's been very healthy, until now.
Sunday's game was the 166th of his career, including the postseason. He's played in 160 and started 148.
"Obviously, Vince has been a staple for a long time," said Mayo, another defensive captain. "He rarely goes out with injuries so it was very shocking and surprising to see my friend go down like that."
Wilfork was hurt on the 10th play of the Falcons' opening series. He was blocked lightly by left guard Justin Blalock, who then ran to his left to block on a pass to Julio Jones. Wilfork changed direction to run toward the action when his right leg gave way. The Patriots said he had an ankle injury, and he didn't return.
On the sideline, Tom Brady talked with Wilfork, then patted him on the shoulder. A short time later, Wilfork was sitting on the back of a cart, his right leg bare below the knee, with Dr. Thomas Gill, the team physician, by his side as they headed off the field.
Wilfork's absence lightens the load for opposing offensive linemen.
"He's not only strong and powerful, but he is also quick for a man his size, and he's a smart player," Patriots left guard Logan Mankins said. "He takes on double teams so well. He just engulfs linemen. In pass protection, he just pushes the pocket. He is always collapsing inside, and that helps the edge rush. So, he just does so many things for us, and does it so good."
Now Belichick must get along without that massive force in the middle.
"Clearly, there are no Vince Wilforks just standing around out there on the corner waiting to sign with the Patriots or some other NFL team," he said on WEEI. "He is a special player, one of the very best at his position."