As the New England Patriots fought and scrapped their way to a 5–1 record after Week 6, the defense has played a major role in carrying the team, as opposed to years past.
Unfortunately, a Patriots defense, a unit that has already lost for the season one All-Pro, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, looks to have lost a second one, linebacker Jerod Mayo.
The news was first reported by Les Carpenter of Yahoo Sports:
Yahoo sources: Pats Jerod Mayo has surgery on a torn pectoral muscle and could miss the rest of the season: http://t.co/3IiTejdc2m—Les Carpenter (@Lescarpenter) October 15, 2013
It was confirmed by Mike Petraglia of WEEI.com, who added some hopeful news for Patriots fans:
Have confirmed Mayo surgery on torn pectoral. Here's the deal. Out at least 8 weeks. Can start working out again in 6 weeks. #Patriots—Mike Petraglia (@Trags) October 16, 2013
In a piece on WEEI.com, Petraglia also adds this:
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.
Mayo is a stalwart of the Patriots defense. According to Football Outsiders, he has participated in 96 percent of the Patriots' defensive snaps so far this season. According to NFL.com statistics, Mayo has averaged nearly nine tackles per game, and those tackles come in both the running game and the passing games. According to the NFL.com game books, most of his tackles against the Bengals came against the run, while against the Saints, most of his tackles came after pass completions.
Mayo doesn't put up spectacular numbers in any one category. According to NFL.com, he has a grand total of 18 passes defensed, nine sacks, three interceptions and eight forced fumbles in his six-year career. But the key is that he can make plays at any level of the defense.
And he makes a lot of them.
How the Patriots can replace him
To answer this question, look at how the Patriots defended Jimmy Graham after Aqib Talib left with an injury. After Talib left, they rotated defenders against Graham; on the drive in which Kyle Arrington intercepted Brees, Graham was also guarded at times by Mayo as well as safety Devin McCourty.
The Patriots will likely use the same strategy to replace Jerod Mayo. It's actually a given, just looking at the snap counts for the Patriots' other linebackers.
In terms of versatility, the Patriots player most similar to Mayo is second-year linebacker Dont'a Hightower. But he already plays almost 70 percent of the defensive snaps, so he can't completely replace Mayo.
The Patriots will also likely give Hightower the green dot on his helmet, meaning he will be responsible for calling signals for the defense; it's a role he's performed in the preseason (as did fourth-year linebacker Dane Fletcher), according to Erik Frenz in a piece for Boston.com.
Hightower could see his playing time spike at about 95 percent.
Next is Brandon Spikes, who's been used a bit less than half of New England's defensive snaps. Spikes is a very physical player, but he generally comes out on obvious passing downs. Given the loss of Vince Wilfork, the Patriots need Spikes for his run-stuffing ability. It's likely his playing time will peak at about 60 or 70 percent of the snaps.
Combined, that adds up to about half of Mayo's snaps. The other half will likely go to two younger, equally fast linebackers, Fletcher and Jamie Collins, a second-round draft pick this year.
According to NFLDraftScout.com, Fletcher, Collins and Mayo all have 40 times in the 4.5-to-4.6 second range. Fletcher and Collins are both a little slimmer than the 6'1", 250-pound Mayo: Fletcher is 6'2", 245 pounds, while Collins is 6'3", 250.
Both have seen only spot duty, so it's likely that the Patriots will experiment with both players. Between them, though, the Patriots should be able to replace the remainder of Mayo's snaps. (The Patriots also have seventh-round linebacker Steve Beauharnais, but he has not played a single snap all year.)
So the short version is that the Patriots will probably replace Mayo's workload through a linebacker-by-committee approach.