Hold The Mayo

Injuries are a common occurrence in the NFL, and veteran stars can quickly become afterthoughts to a team that changes to get by without them. Jerod Mayo was once the most important player on the New England Patriots defense. Peter Benet explains how the injury has prompted New England to hold the Mayo.

When he returned from a torn pectoral muscle to start last season, Patriot captain Jerod Mayo played 99% of the defensive snaps until tearing his patellar tendon in week 6. Returning this year, the 29-year-old linebacker has played just 22% of snaps in the first three games. Why? The answer is more interesting than simply age or injury.

The calling card of the Bill Belichick 3-4 defense for thirty years was a core of smart, aggressive, versatile linebackers –from Harry Carson, Carl Banks, Lawrence Taylor, and Pepper Johnson, to Roman Phifer, Adalius Thomas, Mike Vrabel, and Tedy Bruschi. It was a bulwark against the run and Jerod Mayo fit in perfectly, quarterbacking the unit starting in 2008.

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Mayo drops Dennis Pitta.

A first round draft pick out of Tennessee, Mayo had an immediate impact with 92 tackles as a rookie, rising to 111 in 2010 and 2012–a Pro Bowler both years. With a nose for the ball, he stood out as smart, fast, and agile, able to range sideline to sideline. At 6’1” and 250, he was not known as a pass rusher or defender, but was the team’s leading tackler. As the Patriots moved toward a 4-3 scheme in 2011, Mayo continued to flourish, moving from inside linebacker to weakside linebacker. He had more room to roam; if his pass coverage lagged somewhat, he was effective at blitzing more.

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Mayo trying to pick up Shady McCoy out of the backfield.

But as Mayo battled injuries the past two years, the league was evolving toward the short passing game to tight ends and backs. Pete Carroll appeared to have the answer: bigger safeties, like Kam Chancellor, and quicker linebackers, like Bobby Wagner, who could both keep up with tight ends as well as punish backs who ventured across the middle. The 49ers had Donte Whitner, the Panthers Luke Kuechly, and the Steelers drafted Ryan Shazier to replace Troy Polamalu.

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Mayo shadowing Tyrod Taylor as Charles Clay leaks out into the end zone.

When Mayo went out in 2013, the Patriots replaced him with a fifth defensive back and played a majority of snaps the rest of the year in their nickel defense, compromising their run-stopping. This defense lacked flexibility; when they brought in run-stopping Brandon Spikes, they couldn’t defend short passes.

After the season, they let the lumbering Spikes go in free agency. They had potential pass rushers in top draft picks Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins – huge, fast, athletic – but still not known for dropping into coverage. When they opened 2014 against Miami playing three linebackers, Mayo got burned for six completions on six pass attempts. When he got hurt in week 6, they once more reverted to nickel.

But this was a nickel defense with a difference. Due to the presence of Darrelle Revis, the Patriots were able to play a single deep safety and move Patrick Chung into the box, strengthening the run defense. A liability against the deep ball, Chung thrived close to the line:

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Opening play of the 2015 season; Patrick Chung (on the 25 yard line) in the box.

In addition, a transformation occurred with Hightower and Collins: They responded to coaching and became not only run stoppers and pass rushers, but also solid pass defenders. Collins and Chung shared a statistic – only 61% passes completed against them – and the 270 pound Hightower rated above them in coverage, per PFF. Against Denver, in 2014 Week 9 , the Patriots mobilized an effective pass rush, placing Hightower and Collins on the line, disguising who would rush. Hightower and Collins began to fulfill their promise as pass rushers who could also drop into coverage.

This year, the nickel package has changed again. Chung remains as the “rover” covering tight ends, but often with two safeties behind him. Against three wide receiver sets, a slot corner comes in; Mayo has been relegated to a specialist role against run formations. With Chung, Hightower, and Collins, the Patriots finally have found a modern defense which can stay on the field against a hurry-up or two tight end offense and defend either a run or a pass. In 2012 the Patriots used five defensive backs only 33% the time; this year they’ve played in a 4-2-5 defense for about 80% the snaps.

It’s not clear that Jerod Mayo is in decline; but it is clear that he finds himself behind two emerging stars, the third man out in a scheme with room for only two linebackers. 

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Inside The Pylon covers the NFL and college football, reviewing the film, breaking down matchups, and looking at the issues, on and off the field.

All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.

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