The New England Patriots keep winning, but they also keep losing key players, especially on defense.
Ask just about any Patriots fan at the start of the season who they believed the team’s most valuable defenders were, and they likely would have told you “Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo.” But with the Patriots placing Jerod Mayo on season-ending injured reserve this morning, they won’t have either of those two to rely on in 2014.
It’s a shame really, as the Patriots defense was performing at it’s highest level since 2008, and perhaps even earlier. They were getting back to being a defense that reminded you of those championship years. And now, well, things are going to get a heck of a lot more difficult.
Jerod Mayo was the leader of this defense in the absence of Wilfork. He may not have been the loudest or most vocal leader, but he was a model of consistency and professionalism and was the leader of the defensive huddle. On defense, he was athletic and rangy enough to cover sideline to sideline and play all three downs, yet tough enough to take on linemen in the running game. He’s going to be tough to replace.
That being said, here are the players who will need to step up in his absence:
Dont’a Hightower: Hightower started the season as a three down linebacker, but has slowly been replaced in that role by Brandon Spikes over the last few weeks. Part of that could be due to the lack of Wilfork to help in the run game – Spikes is the best linebacker in that department. Either way, he’s had a quiet season thus far and a lot more is going to be expected out of Hightower going forward. He could very well lead the defensive huddle and get the green sticker.
Brandon Spikes: Spikes has looked like the Spikes of 2012 the last few weeks. He’s re-emerged into a three-down role, and the Patriots will need him to keep up his level of play going forward. He’s a candidate to lead the huddle, although I think it’s more likely Hightower steps into that role.
Dane Fletcher: Fletcher hasn’t played big snaps since 2011, but he took over for Mayo late against the Saints on Sunday. Fletcher is versatile, and can play literally any linebacker position. One of his biggest strengths is in pass coverage, where he has the ability to stay with most running backs. This is an area where Jerod Mayo actually struggled and Fletcher could provide some value. Whether or not he takes over a starting role, expect him to contribute on 3rd downs.
Jamie Collins: The rookie out of Southern Miss impressed in training camp, but has only played in 52 snaps this season. He’s another strong candidate to replace Mayo in the base defense, as well as contribute in sub-packages. The majority of his snaps this season have come in coverage, and that could be an area where he helps. Many thought he would make an impact on this team following the preseason, and he now has his chance.
Steve Beauharnais: The rookie 7th round pick out of Rutgers has been a healthy scratch most of this year, but is a strong tackler and could be a candidate to play some SLB duties in pinches. He will likely now be active on game days.
Conclusion: The most likely scenario is that the Patriots don't use any one player to replace Mayo's value to the team. They will likely rely on multiple players to take on Mayo's duties. Jerod Mayo is a special player, and it will take a collaborative effort to replace his production and worth both on and off the field.