Heading into Sunday's brutally physical battle with the Saints, the Patriots were already a team struggling with injuries. The problem got exponentially worse over the course of this week. Within the last hour we have learned Aqib Talib, arguably the team's best player this year, will not play on Sunday. This comes on the heels of Jerrod Mayo undergoing surgery for a torn pectoral muscle, placing him on season ending IR. The losses of Vince Wilfork and now Jerod Mayo for the year leaves a gaping hole in the heart of the Patriots' defense.
Mayo's importance to the team can not be understated. He won the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award (almost unanimously) in 2008. During his tenure with the team, he has averaged 129.6 tackles per year, and consistently finished amongst the league leaders in that category. After being named as a defensive captain in 2010, Mayo has been an undoubted leader of the defense, year in and year out.
The question now is: Who will step up to fill the void left by Mayo's absence? Here is a breakdown of the players who will collectively be responsible for this tall task:
1) Dont'a Hightower: As defensive captain, Jerod Mayo led the huddle and had a communication device in his helmet. We learned today that second year linebacker Dont'a Hightower will assume this role and be responsible for the playcalling this Sunday in New York, and likely beyond if he proves he is up to the task. Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston reported that Hightower has already met with Matt Patricia and Pepper Johnson to discuss his new and expanded role on the team. Hightower spoke today about attempting to replace Mayo (from ESPNBoston.com):
"I'm looking forward to it. It's definitely something that I knew down the road, if something ever happened, that I would have to step up and do it," he said. "I'm not nervous about it. It's something I've done before, maybe not in the NFL [but] I know everyone is behind me and they support me. That's all I can ask for.”
As for the specifics of the responsibility, Hightower said it starts with preparation and knowing "what everyone has to do, what position they have to be in.”
"Basically just being the quarterback of the defense," he said, later adding that he alone can't fill Mayo's shoes: "That's something I'm not going to be able to do. I can't be Mayo. I'm Hightower. I can only do my job, in the ways like I feel I should. There's all kinds of leadership, so I'm not going to have to rock the boat and do something that I've never done before. I just have to keep the front-seven guys together and then hopefully those guys have my back on the back end."
Hightower was considered as a premier inside linebacker of the 2012 NFL Draft, in which the Patriots selected him 25th overall. He had a promising rookie year, tallying 60 combined tackles and 4 sacks. Many anticipated him as a candidate for a breakout season in 2013. While his opportuntiy to shine unfortunately comes as a result of devestating injuries to key players, Hightower has been thrust into the limelight as the leader on that side of the ball. He has all the talent and athleticism in the world, and now it is time to see if he is able to elevate his game to the next level.
2) Brandon Spikes: I wrote last week about Brandon Spikes' increased role following the loss of Vince Wilfork, after his snap counts through the first four games of the season were surprisingly low. He will likely be even more prominent on the defense going forward due to his run-stopping abilities.
All Patriots fans know about the devastating hits he is capable of delivering. Spikes is at his best attacking the line of scrimmage to blow up blocking assignments, meet running backs head on, and give chase to quarterbacks. His pass-defense and coverage skills are limited at best. Expect for high snap-count totals for "The Sandman" from here on in.
3) Jamie Collins: Jamie Collins, the Patriots' first draft pick in the 2013 draft, has not seen many snaps so far this year. Much like Spikes and Hightower, he has suddenly become a much more important piece on the defense who will be asked to contribute immediately.
Speaking to the media today, Dont'a Hightower discussed the young player's intelligence and immense athletic ability (Quote from ESPNBoston.com):
"He's a smart dude, very athletic, probably one of the most athletic guys on the team. He knows the playbook, he's always quick to answer a question. I'm sure whatever they ask him to do, or anybody else in that linebacker room to do, I'm pretty sure they'll be ready to stand up and go.”
There is no doubt that Collins has looked lost on the field at times dating back to the preseason. Hopefully this can be chalked up to rookie growing pains that he is capable of overcoming soon. If he is going to truly be an asset to the defense, he is going to have to learn fast, because speed and athletic ability alone does not make for an effective NFL linebacker.
4) Dane Fletcher: Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2010, Fletcher showed potential before being derailed by an injury in the 2012 preseason, when he suffered a torn ACL. While Jamie Collins may be a more talented athlete, Fletcher has experience, which is obviously valuable in replacing a guy like Jerod Mayo. Whether or not Dane Fletcher is capable of being a starting linebacker is yet to be seen. But is at least nice to have a veteran with a bit of experience on board in case a player like Jamie Collins becomes overwhelmed.
Together, these four players will be primarily responsible for replacing Jerod Mayo at the linebacker level of the field. But it truly will be a team effort to make up for the loss of a player so critical to the team not just on the stat sheet but as a leader in the locker room and on the field. Veterans like Rob Ninkovich and Devin McCourty (who was renamed as a captain today) will have to step up and become more vocal on the field, particularly to the younger players. Younger guys like Chandler Jones, Alfonzo Dennard, and Joe Vellano are going to continue to have to play great football if the defense is going to continue to perform at a high level.
Since their amazing victory Sunday night over the Saints, it has pretty much been nothing but bad news for the Patriots. It seems like the recurring theme of this year is the loss of key guys to injury. But yet they have managed to win 5 out of 6 games to this point, and there seems to be an inherent resilliancy within this team, despite the continuous distractions that have arisen.
Without Vince, Mayo, Talib, Amendola, and possibly Gronk, this week in New York could be the team's toughest test yet.