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Pats Brace for Falcons’ Rugged Running Game

New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork (75) lines up against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork (75) lines up against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Foxborough, Mass. — Vince Wilfork’s job might be easier without Steven Jackson charging at him.

That doesn’t mean the Patriots defensive tackle wants the Falcons running back to miss Sunday night’s game.

Wilfork figures if New England beats a team that’s at full strength, no one can question the victory.

“I always want to play the best because it will never give people an excuse to say, ‘If we would have had this person,’ ” the outcome might be different, Wilfork said Thursday. “I always want to play against the best at all times, but it’s not up to me. People get hurt.”

Jackson missed Sunday’s 27-23 loss to the Miami Dolphins with a hamstring injury. It also kept him out of practice on Wednesday and Thursday.

But Atlanta has two solid backups. Against Miami, Jacquizz Rodgers rushed for 86 yards and Jason Snelling picked up 53.

“Rodgers is a really good back and Snelling gives them a little changeup with his size and downhill (style),” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said, “but if you watch Rodgers on tape, he’s done a really good job, very good feet, make guys miss.

“So, for us, it’s the same. If they hand the ball off, we’ve got to surround them and get a guy on the ground.

“So we can’t just go in the game and say, ‘no Steven Jackson, no run game.’ ”

The Patriots take a 3-0 record and the NFL’s sixth-best pass defense into the game against Atlanta’s balanced offense. Matt Ryan has potent receivers in Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez.

If the Falcons can establish their running game, they can be more effective using play action since defensive backs might have to play closer to the line, opening more room for the receivers.

“If you can slow the running game down, the play action pass really doesn’t do anything,” Wilfork said, “but that’s going to be tough because they run the ball well.”

So far the Patriots have allowed the ninth-most yards rushing in the NFL.

“Any time a team play actions, it’s a chance we can lose some guys” in coverage, McCourty said.

“I have to do a good job reading the quarterback, trying to match guys and staying deep a lot of times in play action.”

He and fellow safeties Steve Gregory and Duron Harmon “can’t get caught biting down on the run,” McCourty said, “especially with the threats they have on the outside.”

The Patriots veteran defense has allowed just three touchdowns this season. The only newcomer to the starting lineup is defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, who spent his other nine seasons with the Oakland Raiders.

“He fit right in, no issues,” Wilfork said. “You can’t double (team) everybody. He’s been making a lot of plays for us. When I’m on the field and I have guys around me and I just feel and know they understand what’s going on, that’s the feeling I get with these guys.”

But the Patriots have played three of the weakest teams — the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Atlanta is just 1-2, but its losses have been by six points to New Orleans and four points to Miami. Both the Saints and Dolphins are 3-0.

And the Patriots haven’t faced a receiver such as Jones, whose 27 catches are tied with New England’s Julian Edelman for the NFL lead.

“When (Jones) first came into the league it was still kind of the Roddy White show over there,” Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib said.

“Now Julio kind of took the reins as the No. 1 receiver. Don’t get me wrong. Roddy White is still in there and he still does his part. Julio’s kind of their go-to guy right now.”

So even without Jackson, the Falcons have a strong, balanced offense.

“I don’t care who they put back there,” Wilfork said. “When I think about Atlanta I always think about the running game. When you’re able to go in a game and run the ball and (use) play action passes, screens, go down field, have a tight end who can catch that you have to defend, it’s very tough for a defense.”