- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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Sharing some thoughts on the Yahoo! Sports report that linebacker Jerod Mayo underwent surgery for a torn pectoral muscle on Tuesday and could miss the rest of the season:
What it means: This is a direct hit at the heart of the Patriots’ defense, which comes two weeks after the Patriots lost another key player, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, to a season-ending torn Achilles. Furthermore, cornerback Aqib Talib, arguably the team's best defender through six weeks, left Sunday's game with a hip injury and his status is unclear.
Mayo’s diverse role: Mayo is one of the few defenders who plays on all snaps, and he has been performing at a high level in recent weeks, most recently helping to limit dangerous Saints running back Darren Sproles in both the running and passing games. There is no one player who can replace what Mayo did -- from leading the defensive huddle, to serving as a captain, to leading the team in tackles in each of his first five years with the club. Mayo plays weakside linebacker in the team’s base 4-3 defense and is also part of nickel and dime packages. His snap count totals over the last four years reflect his value: 95.9 percent in 2012, 83.1 percent in 2011, 96.8 percent in 2010, and 73.7 percent in 2009.
Who steps in for base defense: Top draft choice Jamie Collins (52nd overall) is the leading candidate to step in to the base 4-3 defense on the weakside, joining middle linebacker Brandon Spikes and strongside linebacker Dont'a Hightower. Collins has played sparingly on defense this season (52 total snaps, including penalties), as he’s still learning the team’s scheme. Four-year veteran Dane Fletcher, who has more experience in the system but has mostly been a special teamer this year, is the other viable candidate. The Patriots have good depth at linebacker, but it’s a natural drop-off with anyone after Mayo.
Who steps in for sub defense: The Patriots have run the majority of their snaps in a sub defense, and Mayo was an integral part of both nickel and dime packages. The Patriots could now turn to a combination of Hightower and Spikes, but they lose speed and range without Mayo in those packages, and that could be where Mayo’s absence hurts most.
Leadership void: With Mayo potentially out for the season, and Wilfork already placed on season-ending injured reserve, the Patriots are without their defensive captains. Perhaps four-year veteran Devin McCourty, a captain in 2011 and 2012, is re-elevated up to that role.