NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
Anthony Dixon gained three yards before he met Jerod Mayo at the 7:37 mark in the second quarter of Sunday’s game in Orchard Park. Yet for the New England Patriots linebacker, a two-time Pro Bowler and five-time captain, his 53rd tackle of the season would not be like the rest.
It would be his last.
Mayo’s right foot planted and his leg buckled as he halted the Buffalo Bills running back in the left A-gap. His teammate, edge-rusher Chandler Jones, arrived to finish the stop to force 2nd-and-7, only the damage had been done by then. Mayo knew it. The Patriots knew it.
On Monday, the fears were confirmed. Sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter that the lower right leg injury Mayo suffered was indeed season-ending. Yet even on Sunday, it was evident on the field that New England’s defense had lost its communicator, its green dot, its “Mike” linebacker, only six weeks in for the second consecutive season.
He was lost for the rest of 2014 after playing 353 of the team’s defensive snaps – fourth most through Oct. 12 – according to Pro Football Focus. And that volume is not replaced in one singular sense of the word.
The absence of No. 51 would not be replaced in Sunday’s 37-22 win. It would not be because third-year outside linebacker Dont’a Hightower was out, nor would it be because undrafted practice squad call-up Deontae Skinner was in to fill out the seven-man fronts.
No personnel substitution would have made the difference, the loss, any less impactful. Mayo’s value to the Patriots was not only realized in the plays he made, in coverage or in the backfield, dropping back or firing through pull blocks like he did with under eight minutes to play in the first quarter.
It was also realized in the plays he relayed from the coaching staff to his teammates, checking back with them for audibles and adjustments before the ball hit quarterback’s hands.
What the 28-year-old Mayo did was partly innate, partly learned and very much earned on the way to becoming the lynchpin to New England’s defense. He thought for all 11, and few are ever able to do so.
Few are ever able to diagnose and translate what he was able to, in the amount of time he had to.
His pre-snap message to 2013 second-round pick Jamie Collins, for one, helped give way to an interception to start the second quarter.
It was Collins who would later be called upon to take over radio communication and the tasks that come along with it versus the Bills.
“Jamie, he’s been in that position before in practice and so forth,” head coach Bill Belichick said of Collins in postgame press conference. “But he stepped up and gave us a lot of leadership, handled the signal calls, the call and the checks and so forth. Jamie did a good job. Thank God we had him today.”
Collins sought to follow in the footsteps of the veteran before him, setting his counterparts in position to make the plays he could not. But while the Patriots were forced to move on without Mayo nearly a year ago to the day, the familiar territory does not make the transition any less difficult. Mayo’s responsibilities rested in his helmet, in his seven years of experience, and the 502 career tackles, 10 sacks, eight forced fumbles, three interceptions and 18 pass deflections he accumulated along the way.
That isn’t ground that Collins, Hightower and Skinner can make up in less than one week’s time, let alone one season. It is, however, an invaluable opportunity.
“I’m sure every player gains from being in there, from gaining experience and playing time and all that, but it’s still very bittersweet to lose a player of Jerod’s magnitude, what he means to the team, how much he embraces the team and how much the team embraces him,” Belichick told WEEI on Monday. “Nobody works harder. Nobody is more unselfish and more dependable than he is.”
Without his eyes and ears in the huddle, New England’s linebackers not only had make the plays he would have versus Buffalo, but they will have to see and hear them moving forward. Whether that calls upon more vocal command from the likes of Jones, Vince Wilfork and Rob Ninkovich at the line, or from the likes of Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung on the back end, remains unclear.
The Patriots will look for clarity on Thursday night, in the driving rain, against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium.
And when the defense finds itself be back on the field just four days after Mayo left it on a cart, the unit will have to play, think, and communicate like he is still on it with them.