Welcome to our new rivalry edition of Steelers Interviews. Throughout the year, our Ron Lippock will be speaking with players you loved to hate from some of the Steelers’ biggest rivals.
Our Ron Lippock with former NFL defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who spent 10 years with the New England Patriots while either the Patriots or Pittsburgh Steelers represented the AFC in the Super Bowl seven times in nine years
First, tell me a bit about what you’re doing now?
Oh man, I’m just enjoying retirement! Just having fun and golfing!
Let’s talk Steelers-Patriots rivalry. What were your first impressions of those games as a young NFL player?
Well, when I was growing up my dad was a big-time Steelers fan, so I grew up knowing that Steelers history from him.
When I got to New England, I remembered all of those times my dad talked about the tradition they had and the Super Bowls they won. Then after I got there New England started winning and we started building our own tradition. We sucked for years before that. So now you had two big powerhouses going at it. It was like the number one and two college teams playing each other.
So there was bad blood there after a while. We both wanted to be the king. It was really us two and no one else. We started hating each other. Pittsburgh ran football for a while – then all of the sudden here we come and we’re a powerhouse. I think Pittsburgh saw us as the little brother trying to come in and take over.
Any early impressions from those games?
Pittsburgh had the greatest fans ever. When we played them as a rookie in 2004, the Steelers got all over us when we got there. We were pissed off — they put it on us and beat us bad. I was like, ‘God damn, they were good!’ They were big and physical, and we had to go back home and into a bye week.
Bill Belichick pulled out the film of the game that week and just ripped us all new assholes after that game. He told us the only good thing about that game is that we’d probably see them again in the playoffs – and he didn’t lie.
We put it on them that time. But when we walked off the field, the Steelers fans stayed and congratulated us. I gained so much respect for them. Those were true football fans that loved the game of football and stood by their team. I walked off of that field a fan of the fans and the organization.
Over my career I gained a bigger respect for that organization. I looked at them and felt if I had the chance I would have loved the chance to play for them.
What made you so successful against the Steelers?
I think our mentality changed. Maybe we took them too lightly that first game I don’t know. They definitely wanted it more. But we knew in the playoffs we didn’t want to go home. We wanted revenge from the first game and wanted to go to the Super Bowl.
Bill pulled many of us aside before that second game. I remember him telling Corey Dillon that they’ll make sure everyone is blocked except Troy Polamalu, that it was up to him to deal with Troy, that he would have to beat Troy. And he pulled me aside and challenged me to beat those double-teams and stop [Jerome] Bettis. He challenged us. We were all so angry and pissed off after that first game we weren’t going to let it happen again. We all pulled together, especially going back to Heinz Field. Our mindset was different.
Any matchups you remember most?
The thing is, I didn’t have a big problem with those guys. [Jeff] Hartings, I felt I could handle. I was a young guy and just had to make up my mind to kick someone’s ass and be effective in the run game. It was all about the running game and stopping that.
Nothing crazy ever happened – maybe some pushing and shoving, but nothing more than that. I appreciated that – it was two good teams battling each other. It was all between the lines. No cheap shots – it was strictly football. When you have two good teams going at it, you don’t have to talk and do that stuff. You just go at each other. And that’s what we did.
Any funny moments stand out to you?
I remember one time Joey Porter and Willie McGinest got into it a bit. Porter walked through our warmup line and McGinest got in his face. Belichick yelled at Willie to sit down and told Porter to “Get the fuck out of here.”
That first game, I know everyone knows Jerome is a big back. But when you see him up close and in person – damn, he’s a big guy. [Alan] Faneca too. I watched [Casey] Hampton on defense too and followed him and watched how he played. We never really talked shit to each other, at least not until after the games were over!
What made New England win so many of those close games – what do you think was the difference?
I think we just made more big plays at those critical times. We weren’t a better or more talented team – nothing like that. A lot was coaching. Belichick was a big part of that, of course. It was like a chess match and it really came down to making one or two mistakes and not taking advantage of opportunities. That’s what decided those games. There were few blowouts. We just found a way to make plays and take advantage of the opportunities. It came down to that one series, one key third down, that’s what wins those games. It can go either way. It’s really just about missing those opportunities.
What do you think of the rivalry today – and of rivalries in general in the NFL now with the rules changes?
You still have them. Teams have their division rivals and teams they play a lot outside of their division – like the Steelers and Patriots and the Steelers and Ravens. The game has changed but it hasn’t changed those rivalries, I don’t think.
Now you just have to find a way to win differently – you can’t make those big hits any more – you have to make plays in different ways. It’s hard though – the game goes so fast you really can’t think about being afraid to hit someone the wrong way. That’s how guys lose jobs. You have one millisecond to think about what you’re going to do. You can’t think like that and make plays. People take that for granted – how fast the game goes and how hard that is to do.