|Take me to your leader: Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo now in charge of Patriots’ defense||01.18.12 at 8:57 pm ET|
FOXBORO — The last time the Patriots faced the Ravens in the postseason, the New England defense was a fundamentally rudderless ship.
Caught in the throes of transition, New England was trying to take the first few steps beyond the Tedy Bruschi/Rodney Harrison/Richard Seymour/Mike Vrabel era, and made several missteps along the way, both when it came to personnel and off-field chemistry. In many cases, the veterans who were around wanted no part of being a leader (or were simply lousy at the job), while the young guys who might have had leadership potential didn’t feel like it was their place to speak out.
Two years later, the Patriots are back in the playoffs against Baltimore, and the leadership situation for New England on the defensive side of the ball is far different than it was in 2009. In the time since that hideous postseason defeat, the Patriots made a clear effort to flush out anyone who might have been a problem in the locker room. In their place, new leaders have emerged. Two guys who were a little cautious about speaking up in 2009 now have no such problems. Vince Wilfork — who delivered a memorable rant before the start of the 2010 season about the need for a new era of leadership with the Patriots — has emerged as a bonafide defensive leader, while linebacker Jerod Mayo has also stepped forth to put his imprint on this team.
While Wilfork’s leadership skills have come to the fore when it comes to working with the other defensive linemen, Mayo’s has been more across the board. This offseason, it was Mayo who provided the spark when it came to organizing workouts, and watching a few minutes of those unofficial practices, it was clear that Mayo was running the defense.
Wilfork, who said Mayo “by far (is) one of the best leaders that we have on this team,” acknowledged that while Mayo was a special player from the start, it took a few years before he got used to the idea of being a leader. Part of that likely stemmed from the fact that at that time, the rookie was part of a defense that included veterans like Bruschi, Vrabel, Harrison and Seymour. But when all those guys departed within months of each other, he was quickly pushed into the spotlight.
“Jerod is a special player. As a rookie he came in and started for us, played for us and played well. Right then and there, I just saw the leadership,” Wilfork said of the linebacker, who is in his fourth season in the NFL. “I tried to tell him as a rookie, ‘Hey, it’s your defense.’ I think at first he kind of looked at it as he was a young guy. But as time went on, he started to understand this is his ship.
“I think a lot of guys respect him, that’s why he’s a captain, that’s why he’s who he is. He might not make the interceptions or the big plays like everyone is used to seeing at middle linebacker but trust me, this guy makes sure everybody on that field is lined up correctly, has the call.”
Wilfork’s situation was a little different. When he initially arrived prior to the 2004 season, the Patriots’ defense was similarly stocked with veterans, and the defensive lineman could simply enjoy life as a complimentary player who didn’t necessarily have to serve in a leadership role. But that all changed two or three years ago when the defense lost several leaders simultaneously. After taking some time to find his voice, Wilfork came into his own as a leader last season.
“Vince, with the most experience, has done a great job of not only leading by example, but also doing the right things, saying the right thing at the right time,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of Wilfork, the only remaining member of the New England defense who has won a Super Bowl ring with the Patriots.
“Guys that need a little boost, he props them up and guys that need to be put in their place, he’ll do that too. I think he has a great, great team attitude. He embraces the success of the team.”
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