Commentary

How will Pats adjust without Mayo?

Injury to defensive centerpiece forces New England to turn to Plan B

Updated: September 19, 2009, 10:55 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When considering what the loss of linebacker Jerod Mayo means to the Patriots' defense, one could make a fair comparison by looking across the line of scrimmage.

In some ways, it is similar to the Patriots' offense losing Tom Brady.

"He is right in the middle of the defense, right in the middle of every play -- run or pass. He calls the signals. I don't know how he could be any more involved with that," head coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday at Gillette Stadium.

[+] EnlargeJerod Mayo
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonJerod Mayo's injury leaves big shoes to fill for the Patriots defense.

Mayo, who wasn't at practice Wednesday, was knocked out of Monday's win over the Bills with a sprained right medial collateral ligament (as first reported in the Boston Globe), just nine plays into his season. While Belichick did not shed much light on how long Mayo would be out, he did express confidence that it was not a season-ending injury.

The question is how the Patriots will adjust until he returns.

"This affects us in a big way, because Jerod is a great player," defensive lineman Mike Wright said of the player who was on the field for more snaps than any New England defender last year, led the team in tackles and was the 2008 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

"You can't replace Jerod," added safety James Sanders. "There is only one Jerod Mayo in the league."

On Monday, the Patriots adjusted on the fly by tapping one of their top assets: versatility. They played a 3-4 alignment on seven of the first nine plays, but were exclusively a four-man line after the injury -- in both their regular defense and sub packages.

It was a noticeable in-game shift, with second-year linebacker Gary Guyton -- who joined the team as an undrafted free agent in 2008 -- most affected by Mayo's absence.

Initially coming off the field in sub situations, Guyton became a full-time player and had the communication device, regularly worn by Mayo, in his helmet, which allowed him to hear the coaches' play calls. He is expected to have the communication device again Sunday against the Jets.

Thrust into the tough spot against the Bills' no-huddle attack, Guyton (6-foot-3, 245 pounds) finished with four tackles (two solo) in a performance that included impressive flashes (he correctly diagnosed a short pass to running back Fred Jackson and raced to the flat with a solid hit to help jar the ball free) and noticeable struggles (he was effectively blocked on Jackson's 10-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the fourth quarter).

Perhaps sensing that he'd be a popular target, the humble Guyton -- who recently tattooed the area code of his hometown (Hinesville, Georgia) on the inside of his left wrist so he doesn't forget his roots -- stayed out of the locker room Wednesday when reporters were present.

Instead, others did the talking for him, such as Wright, Sanders, Pierre Woods, Derrick Burgess and Jarvis Green. All essentially said the same thing: The strength must come from all 11 players rising up together.

One likely change this week is that the Patriots won't be in sub packages as much as they were against the Bills (about 60 percent of the time), because the Jets are more inclined to play power football in more compact formations than to spread the field with three receivers. That should create some extra pressure on the front seven.

Players said they were confident they would adapt to any defensive plan -- 3-4, 4-3, sub package -- as that has been a hallmark of the team's system.

"I think that's one of the things we've always had: the ability to run a lot of different things, and to be able to have players do a lot of different things," said Wright, now in his fifth year with the club. "The defense won't work unless you have the players to do multiple things, and that's what you're asked as soon as you walk in the door. I think it helps us."

"That's what we've been doing since I've been here," added Green, an eight-year veteran. "We have a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things, and depending on the course of the game, you make adjustments."

The Patriots adjusted to provide just enough resistance Monday against the Bills, who had 276 total yards and 17 points on offense. It wasn't a sterling performance, the primary disappointment coming in not being able to stop the Bills on a long touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.

The adjustments continued Wednesday as the Patriots got back to work, attempting to tackle life without their quarterback on defense.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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