NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
As Yahoo Sports’ Les Carpenter first reported, the New England Patriots will be without captain and two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Jerod Mayo for the foreseeable future. In the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game against the New Orleans Saints, Mayo and teammate Steve Gregory collided on opposite ends of Saints tailback Darren Sproles.
The pass from quarterback Drew Brees fell incomplete. The incompletion, however, also left the six-year pro wincing on the Gillette Stadium turf. And it was later learned that Mayo had suffered a torn right pectoral muscle and underwent surgery Tuesday.
According to Mike Petraglia of WEEI.com, the tear was suspected to sideline the 2008 first-round draft pick for eight weeks at the very least. But with New England having spent its injured reserve-designated to return tag on running back Shane Vereen, Mayo was placed on injured reserve Wednesday. His season is over.
Where do the Patriots go from here? Can the defense find a way to function without the 27-year-old’s 407 defensive snaps, 55 tackles and two sacks through six contests? The answer to those questions is not yet known, but what we do know is how New England reacted in his absence.
Mayo departed from the Week 6 matchup with 3:35 left in the final frame. His right arm wrapped around Sproles just as Gregory’s hit reverberated. It was a case of two forces attacking another, from different directions.
When Mayo made it to the bench, Patriots team doctor Thomas Gill began to work on the right side of his chest, particularly the pectoral muscle.
Out on the field, though, the Patriots began to work on stopping the Saints.
During first play without the starting weak-side ‘backer, a 3rd-and-20, the Patriots lined up in a 4-1 dime package with four down linemen – Rob Ninkovich, Chris Jones, Chandler Jones and Michael Buchanan – along with second-year strong-side linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
Two defensive tackles bunched on the right side of the line and a defensive tackle-defensive end collection spaced on the other, this was a variation of what’d we’ve seen in the past from Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.
The play resulted in a 34-yard touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Kenny Stills, putting the Saints up 24-23.
After the Patriots offense turned it over on downs during the following series, the Saints were back on the field with ideal field position, looking to advance the lead and drain the clock. In turn, the run game was the first choice of action.
New England keyed in on it, sending out a loaded defensive front consisting of five defensive linemen – Rob Ninkovich, Joe Vellano, Marcus Forston, Chris Jones and Chandler Jones. Among linebackers, the unit utilized rookie second-rounder Jamie Collins at the line between Ninkovich and Vellano, Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher at traditional inside linebacker spots, and Hightower at the line between the Jones pairing.
With two three-techniques flanking Forston at the nose, the outskirts carried three Patriots defensive ends or linebackers apiece.
The Saints’ “22” setup with two backs and two tight ends netted a four-yard gain.
And after two timeouts were expended, the clock read 2:36. The Saints showed “22” personnel again, suggesting another run. Consequently, the Patriots played a similar nucleus to the previous play. Only this time, Hightower was up on the tight end side of the line and Collins was just steps behind him.
A tally of six stand-up linebackers and defensive ends were in the mix with the three defensive tackles. It could be referred to as a 3-6, a 6-3 or a 5-4 formation depending on one’s perspective.
Whatever it was, it was effective. the Patriots forced the Saints back for a one-yard loss.
On 3rd-and-6 from the New England 21-yard line with 2:33 left in the action, New Orleans displayed two backs, only to motion fullback Jed Collins out wide in an effort to deter the defense. Nevertheless, the Patriots posted the same personnel and shipped Collins to cover the slot and Spikes out to cover the fullback.
Brees dropped back and targeted wideout Marques Colston, but cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was there and the pass fell to the ground. The Saints were left to kick the field goal, making the score 27-23.
The next Patriots offensive drive lasted only one play, as QB Tom Brady threw an interception intended for slot receiver Julian Edelman. Nonetheless, if there was any consolation, it didn’t sacrifice much time.
New Orleans offense returned to the field at the 2:16 mark, aiming to close the game out via the ground. New England trotted out the same assortment to prevent any sort of rushing play. Hightower and Collins hugged the two-tight end set and the rest remained almost identical.
The Saints managed just two yards on the ensuing handoff. New England took its third timeout with 10 seconds to spare before the two-minute warning.
On the next play, a 2nd-and-8, New Orleans implemented a one-man backfield behind Brees and orchestrated the fullback to the slot. The Patriots switched things up on the other side of the ball, retreating to a 3-4. Vellano stood in the five-technique head over the right tackle, Forston subbed out which moved the interior Jones to nose, and the edge-rushing Jones manned the five-technique across from the left tackle.
Behind the three-man line, Ninkovich extended outside Vellano in place of Collins at linebacker, Spikes and Fletcher huddled close with the A-gaps, and Hightower mimicked Ninkovich.
A run off the right end landed the Saints a gain of only one yard. The contest ticked down to the two-minute timeout.
And that meant that the Saints had to either convert on 3rd-and-7 or punt it away. New Orleans head coach Sean Payton vied to convert with the run. By and large it was a conservative decision, the “22,” but it was one that could expire valuable seconds and perhaps acquire a fresh set of downs.
It was up to the undermanned Patriots defense to dictate otherwise.
The front went back to the run-stopping enforcements of Ninkovich and Jones outside, Vellano, Forston and the undrafted Jones inside the trenches, Hightower and Collins barricading the tight ends, and Spikes and Fletcher over top.
Brees took the snap from center and proceeded to lose five yards in the direction of the left end. The Patriots lived to see another offensive chance.
That chance turned into a 30-27 victory for New England.
Now, the Patriots defense survived without the services of Mayo for seven defensive downs, but it’s important to note that the triumphs hinged on the situation. New Orleans opting to pass just twice in response to Mayo’s departure contributed to the outcome.
With that said, the Patriots came through with the adjustments and resistance to make the Oct. 13 victory possible. Fletcher, an adept cover linebacker and special teamer, may ultimately assume Mayo’s duties in the base 4-3. Although from the small sample size on film, it’s clear that the reboot will be more than a one-man fix.
When the defense went to the nickel, it was solely Hightower in the mix at linebacker. When the run scenario unfolded, the coaching staff turned to four linebackers and incorporated Collins’ explosive athleticism for five plays. And on another play, Ninkovich was called to his old stomping grounds at 3-4 outside linebacker.
From what we saw Sunday evening, it’s evident that the leadership and production of Mayo will not be replaced by one source.
All hands will be needed on deck.