The Patriots went into the 2013-14 NFL season with what was anticipated to be an above-average NFL defense.
That was on display for the first few weeks of the season, as New England won its games in low-scoring, grind-it-out ways – completely against the grain of years past. That trend could go in a different direction going forward.
First, Vince Wilfork was placed on IR, ending his season, after tearing his Achilles tendon in Week 4. Then, fellow D-lineman Tommy Kelly left the game in Week 5 with a knee injury, and didn’t play in Week 6 against the Saints. Then came two more key injuries on the defensive side against the Saints: cornerback Aqib Talib and linebacker Jerod Mayo.
Talib, who is dealing with a left hip injury, didn’t practice on Wednesday. The Mayo news, meanwhile, is as bad as it gets. The Pats defensive captain was put on IR on Wednesday after having surgery for a torn pectoral muscle. His season is over too.
You can’t simply replace guys like Wilfork, Mayo, and especially Talib this season, but Bill Belichick has no choice but to move on with the healthy players he has.
That means linebackers like Jamie Collins and Dane Fletcher can expect bigger roles the rest of the season. Collins, the team’s first pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, is most likely the leading candidate. Fletcher is coming off a torn ACL that kept him out entirely last season, but has done well on special teams and in limited linebacker duties.
The message is clear though: next man up.
“When you lose someone like we did with Vince [Wilfork] or Jerod [Mayo], it’s tough,” said Tom Brady. “But I’d say a lot of teams deal with it too. You don’t want to feel sorry for yourself. What you realize is somebody has to fill in and do the job. As much as you hate to lose guys, there’s nothing you can do about it and the season doesn’t end.”
But Mayo was more than the team’s best tackler. He was the one wearing the communication device in his helmet, relaying messages from the sidelines to his teammates. Now, that job will fall on somebody else.
Could it be safety Devin McCourty, who has plenty of experience on the Pats D? Or perhaps Dont’a Hightower, who has really stepped up in his second season, and wore the device during the preseason? Belichick wasn’t ready to name the next in line to wear it.
“One guy has to get it to the other 10, however you slice it up,” Belichick said. “Whatever you feel is the most efficient way to do that for your defensive system and the players that are involved then you pick out your best option.”