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Analysis: What does loss of Jerod Mayo mean for Patriots defense?

10.15.13 at 9:03 pm ET
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The loss of Jerod Mayo for any extended period of time would be a substantial blow to a New England defense that is already dealing with the loss of veteran defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, and would force Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia to get even more creative when it comes to designing a defense.

Mayo isn’€™t the sort of elite level defender who gets mentioned in the same breath as other middle/inside linebackers like Patrick Willis, but his durability, consistency and leadership have proven invaluable to the Patriots defense since he arrived as a first-round pick in 2008. The Tennessee product is a tackle machine — he’€™s been at or near the top of the league in tackles since he was a rookie — but every good middle linebacker will pick up a ton of tackles. His value to the defense is measured in his durability (he’€™s missed just four of a possible 86 games over the course of his first five-plus years in the league, and has played in 399 of New England’€™s 407 defensive snaps this year before being injured — 98 percent), as well as his overall ability to do many things, and do them at a consistently high level.

He’€™s not considered an elite run-stopper, but is still consistently better than 75 percent of the rest of the league when it comes to run defense. He’€™s not the first choice when it comes to working as a coverage linebacker, but a glimpse at the film of his work over the last few weeks will tell you all you need to know about his ability when he’€™s matched up against running backs and the occasional tight end out of the backfield. And while he’€™s not the senior member of the defense — that honor still falls to Wilfork — there’€™s a reason he was named a captain in his second season in the league. He was the natural choice to wear the green dot on the back of his helmet at an early age, and the 27-year-old is wise beyond his years. He has consistently worked as a mentor for younger linebackers like Dont’€™a Hightower, Brandon Spikes, Jamie Collins and Dane Fletcher.

(In the context of this discussion it’€™s also worth mentioning that Mayo has a legendarily high pain threshold. When he injured his right knee in the 2009 opener against the Bills, teammates marveled at the fact that he returned as fast as he did. Mayo ended up missing three games, and still returned in time to lead the team in tackles. If there’€™s anyone who might try to push through and come back sooner than expected, it’€™s Mayo.)

Going forward, as previously stated, this will force the Patriots to try to get creative with some of their defensive schemes. When it comes to the linebacking corps, the bulk of the leadership duties will likely fall to Hightower, who has also shown some positional versatility in that he’€™s played on the inside and outside — that ability to play both spots could paper over some personnel deficiencies.

This also opens the door for more playing time for a pair of intriguing possibilities in Spikes and Collins. With the Patriots favoring nickel as their base defense through much of the first six games of the season, Spikes has been the odd man out more often than not. But going forward, the Patriots could put together a scheme that has Spikes in the middle — even thought he’€™s not as good in coverage as Mayo — as well as Hightower and either Collins or Fletcher. Collins could also see more time as a possibility working in coverage on passing downs, trying to replicate Mayo’€™s work as a pass defender.

As WEEI.com’s Mike Petraglia reports, a source indicates that Mayo is out at least eight weeks but could return depending on the severity. If the tear was severe, then the linebacker is likely done for the season. The Patriots have multiple options with Mayo at this point: they could simply wait, see how he responds to treatment and rehab, and remain open to the possibility he could be back later in the season. Or they could place him on injured reserve, which would end his season. One thing to remember is that they have already used their short-term IR designation on running back Shane Vereen, who is eligible to return from a Week 1 wrist injury in Week 11.

Regardless of what the team decides to do, it’€™s a serious blow to the hopes of a team that has opened the year 5-1. On the defensive side of the ball, the Patriots had been playing very well to start the 2013 season, better than most anyone had envisioned when the season began. But overcoming the loss of Wilfork and possibly Mayo — as well as the uncertain future facing Aqib Talib and Tommy Kelly because of injuries they’€™ve suffered over the last two weeks — will serve as a colossal challenge to a unit that was just starting to come into its own.

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