The reports are in, and though none of them seem to correlate with any other, the outlook for the short term does not look so great for Jerod Mayo and the Patriots.
It’s been stated and restated roughly 2,417 times that the Patriots’ defense lost four key veterans and that the time for younger players like Mayo to “take the torch” has come. So with the torch-holder sidelined for anywhere from four to eight weeks (depending who you talk to), where does that leave the Patriots?
Not in a very good place, if Monday night was any indication. After Mayo left the game in the first quarter, the Patriots were unable to stop the Bills’ running game and looked completely baffled as a unit on screens and short passes. Watching the game, it became increasingly obvious that (a) Mayo’s value is immense and (b) the backups are going to need some help.
The current depth chart at linebacker is anything but deep, with Gary Guyton and Eric Alexander the only middle linebackers remaining. Adalius Thomas, undoubtedly the most versatile linebacker on the team, could make the move to the middle. Doing that would all but guarantee the Patriots switch to a 4-3 defense – something they’ve shown capable of doing throughout the preseason.
But while moving Thomas inside and adding a big body to line up next to Vince Wilfork on the line would help stop the run, it may come at the sacrifice of rushing the quarterback. Tully Banta-Cain, Pierre Woods and Derrick Burgess would be forced to carry a load that they may not necessarily be able to bear. And Rob Ninkovich doesn’t look like the answer.
If the team wanted to look into free agency, the cupboards aren’t stocked too well. There’s Derrick Brooks, but the 36-year-old has been passed up by a number of teams, including the suddenly Brian Urlacher-less Bears. That doesn’t speak too well to his value.
There also are a number of other unemployed NFL veterans, like Zach Thomas (36), Willie McGinest (37) and Junior Seau (40), but a team that traded Richard Seymour for a 2011 draft pick may not be extraordinarily interested in adding age to the NFL’s third-oldest team.
Whoever the personnel includes — as with any issue on defense — the Patriots will adjust depending on their opponent. Even if Mayo’s timetable for return is on the shorter end, the Pats won’t have any easy weeks and will still have to get creative.
It starts with the Jets on Sunday. Thomas Jones and Leon Washington combined for 167 yards and two touchdowns on the ground while Washington added another 24 yards through the air in New York’s 24-7 win over Houston on Sunday. Rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez looked good, but the Patriots’ coaching staff should be equipped with enough weapons to thoroughly confuse the 22-year-old signal-caller, even with the short week.
It won’t get any easier the following week, when Michael Turner (the NFL’s second-leading rusher in 2008) makes his way to Foxborough. With him will be Matt Ryan, who threw for 3,440 yards last year and 229 yards and a touchdown in this year’s season opener. Complicating matters even further for the Patriots will be Tony Gonzalez. The Patriots can’t afford to look past the Jets, so they’ll need to work quickly to develop a game plan against the potent Atlanta offense.
The Pats will get a break — so to speak — in Week 4 at home against the Ravens. While a backfield of Ray Rice and Willis McGahee is nothing to scoff at, Baltimore’s offense is more straightforward than others. This game will come down to execution.
When the team travels to Denver for Week 5, head coach Josh McDaniels and quarterback Kyle Orton could have their offense in a rhythm. They were certainly out of it in Week 1, when they scored just 12 points against the Bengals and only did so thanks to a miracle 87-yard touchdown reception by Brandon Stokley. However, with Eddie Royal, Brandon Marshall, Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter, the Patriots will have their hands full.
It won’t get any easier the following week when the Titans visit Gillette. Tennessee’s offense looked weak against the Steelers, but Chris Johnson and LenDale White will be tough to stop.
The Patriots then travel to London to play the Buccaneers. With 100,000 fans, a slippery field and a time-zone change, anything can happen.
At that point, Mayo will have had six weeks to recover, with the bye week following. Ideally, Mayo will either return or will be ready to return for Week 9, when the Dolphins travel to New England.
In looking at the opponents, the Patriots without Mayo have a fair chance to own a respectable record (somewhere in the 5-2 area) when the linebacker joins the team. Of course, there are a lot of ifs. Another injury to a linebacker, and they’ve got a whole new batch of issues.
But for now, the Patriots are OK. Not great, but OK, and there’s no need to call Junior Seau. At least not yet.
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