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Former Patriots LB Jerod Mayo makes a few suggestions for the New England defense

Tennessee Titans v New England Patriots Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Former New England Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo has a recurring role with CSNNE where he brings his high level of football knowledge and eloquence to explain what the team is doing on the field. Mayo is one of the smartest players ever to play for the Patriots and his ability to explain the technical complexities on the field in understandable terms is admirable.

Mayo joined CSNNE’s Tom Curan on the Quick Slants Podcast to discuss the defensive breakdowns by the Patriots and explain how communication played a role on the defenses he led for nearly a decade.

The whole podcast is worth a listen and Mayo makes a couple suggestions on how to improve the New England defense, starting with linebacker Dont’a Hightower.

“Hightower has to get back in the middle of the defense,” Mayo says, “and I know he’s not healthy and that’s why they’re not doing it, right now he’s doing situational pass rushing downs, and things like that, but until you get that...”

“You have a lapse on the back-end, that’s going to get fixed,” Curran interjects.

“Oh, for sure,” Mayo agrees.

“But Gilmore’s not quite ready,” Curran continues, “and then you have two guys who are very young or inexperienced in the second level in [Kyle] Van Noy and Elandon [Roberts], and now Elandon’s hurt, you almost are forced to put Dont’a back there.”

Hightower practiced on the edge all summer and it looked like that would be his role for 2017. After spending much of NFL career as an inside linebacker, Hightower has moved to the edge of the defense’s 5-1 alignment, leaving Kyle Van Noy in the middle.

Van Noy has impressive range and he’s improved his tackling, but he lacks the anchor in the middle of the defense that Hightower routinely flashed against the run. If I were Bill Belichick, and Mayo effectively makes this suggestion, then the Patriots should flip the role of Hightower and Van Noy, leaving Van Noy on the edge and Hightower in the middle.

An added bonus is Hightower’s deep knowledge of the defense. As the middle linebacker, Hightower would be able to relay the roles and responsibilities to the defense at a likely higher level than Van Noy.

A side note from Hightower: When a defensive lineman slaps their butt before the snap, that means they’ve received and understood a call from the linebacker.

Hopefully when Shea McClellin returns to the field, or even as Cassius Marsh becomes more comfortable in the defense, Van Noy can play the weakside linebacker role, with Hightower in the middle and Marsh or McClellin on the strongside.

As for the secondary, Mayo is seeing just a series of mental errors. The Patriots defense is extremely simple at this point and it’s not a matter of zone or man coverage mistakes.

“I think it’s purely execution,” Mayo said before adding, “Where the breakdown is happening is in the classroom.”

Mayo explains how the Patriots try to defend bunch formations and how the current defense is breaking down. The defender at the point is supposed to lock on to the receiver at the point, leaving the two off-the-line defenders to cover the receiver that breaks in their respective direction. That’s one call.

Another is match-up specific where maybe the offense has a tight end at the point and the safety is deeper. The defensive point person is supposed to chuck the tight end to ruin the offensive timing before dropping into coverage. That’s another call.

A potential solution to this problem is to play a simple match-up game and Mayo highlights some early-career struggles by Malcolm Butler as a way the team found a workaround. They would simply say, Butler, you’re covering this specific receiver. We’ve got the rest. And then Butler would cover his man and the more experienced Patriots defenders would fulfill their responsibilities.

The Patriots could say, Gilmore, you cover the point. We’ll do the rest. And hopefully that could fix some of the problems.

This isn’t a universal solution because teams can and will adjust by creating a mismatch opportunity for a different receiver against the Patriots defensive backs, but it could be a step in the right direction.

Ultimately, the Patriots just need to work on their communication and ensuring that every player hears the adjustment. There were times where three defensive backs were talking at the same time and all were saying different things, leading to serious breakdowns in the secondary.

Mayo is confident that the secondary will figure it out, maybe by the bye week. Hopefully the rest of the defensive improvements will follow.

Oh, and if all of this sounds familiar, it’s because Mayo said pretty much the same exact thing after the Patriots loss to the Seattle Seahawks last season. It’s all about improving the execution of the play.