FOXBORO, Mass. — Jerod Mayo cannot be replaced by one player. And therein lies the problem of replacing the All-Pro linebacker.
Mayo’s strength as a player comes in his versatility. He’s a strong run defender, clogging rushing lanes. He’s a strong pass protector, falling into his zones and tracking running back and tight ends. And he’s a strong pass rusher, especially when he gets after the quarterback on delayed blitzes.
The Patriots spend most of their time in the nickel defense, so there are typically two linebackers on the field at once (not counting Rob Ninkovich, who plays a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end role). To start the season, those two linebackers were Mayo and Dont’a Hightower. After the team lost Vince Wilfork, Brandon Spikes started to receive a heavier dose of snaps in the nickel to bolster the team’s run-stopping abilities.
Since Hightower is probably the second-most balanced linebacker on the team, he’ll likely take over for Mayo at weakside linebacker. Spikes will remain at middle linebacker and either Jamie Collins or Dane Fletcher will play the third linebacker role. Ninkovich could also drop back to play linebacker, as he did in 2011, but the Patriots have less depth at defensive end, with just Jake Bequette and Michael Buchanan behind Chandler Jones and Ninkovich.
How the Patriots divvy up their nickel snaps will be interesting, but they’ll also be forced to show their hand more. Hightower will likely be a cog in the sub package defense, but if they go with Spikes as the second linebacker, they’ll be more exposed against the pass. If they go with Collins, they’ll be more exposed against the run.
Spikes is an explosive player in the middle of the Patriots’ defense. He’s a great run stopper and a proficient pass rusher, since his best play comes in 10-yard bursts. But he has trouble tracking faster players, especially as they get down field. We saw him get beat a couple times on Sunday, most notably on a 25-yard reception by Ben Watson.
Collins has not received many opportunities yet in the Patriots’ defense. He’s mostly been used in nickel packages as a second or third linebacker. His strengths lie in coverage, but he’s even shown some issues tracking faster players, like Tony Gonzalez in Week 4.
Mayo wasn’t the perfect cover linebacker and he wasn’t as explosive as Spikes in the run game. But he was great at keeping running backs from getting past the second level and he was never out of place when dropping into his zones.
Now, the Patriots will have to gamble on any play whether they want to be weakened against the run or pass. And against teams that are strong in both aspects, like Houston (when Matt Schaub isn’t throwing pick sixes), they could have trouble.
It won’t be easy to replace Mayo, nor was it easy to replace Wilfork. But the defense got off to a hot start and they have enough quality players to at least play respectfully as the season progresses. It’s just too bad we’ll never know how great this unit could have been.