Monday, September 14, 2009

Dramatic win overshadows Mayo injury for now

It won’t generate the hysteria another knee injury a year ago did. It won’t prompt the same sky-is-falling frenzy among fans.

Should the knee injury suffered by Jerod Mayo in any way resemble the knee injury suffered to Tom Brady, though, the Patriots’ season might similarly be already on the brink.

Even a loss to the Bills would have been a temporary setback. The Patriots could have moved past that. A season with similar defensive upheaval – notably the abrupt release of safety Lawyer Milloy -- began with a resounding defeat to Buffalo but ended with an Adam Vinatieri field goal to win the Super Bowl.

A season-ending injury to Mayo -- the worst-case scenario, sure, but a possibility nonetheless -- makes a trip to the Super Bowl far less likely.

The then-rookie out of Tennessee finished last season with a whopping 128 tackles, 10th-best in the NFL, and he also broke up four passes. Most importantly, though, he grew into a leader who quickly could fill the shoes of Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel as the rock of the Patriots' defense.

But he left the game with a knee injury in the first quarter and never reappeared. He walked off the field and to the locker room under his own power -- but so too did Brady a season ago after his collision with Kansas City's Bernard Pollard.

(Patriots coach Bill Belichick, predictably, offered no insight into the severity of the injury, even smirking at the question.)

"Jerod is a great leader, a young guy, his second year in the league and a captain," fellow linebacker Pierre Woods said. "It's terrible, but you know what? We've got to keep going. He'll be back. Everybody's got to step up and continue to play hard."

Trouble is, no one on the Patriots' defense can do what Mayo does. There's a reason he plays in the middle: A team's best linebacker usually is going to play in the middle. When Mayo went down, the Patriots shifted into a three-linebacker alignment with Guyton alone in the middle for the first time in his NFL career.

That backfired when Woods, into the game alongside Guyton, found himself blocked out of his first play on the field, a 21-yard rush for Fred Jackson. Two plays later, Woods failed to chase down rookie tight end Shawn Nelson on the Bills' first touchdown.

By the fourth quarter, Guyton had moved back toward the edge. Adalius Thomas, the team's best pass-rusher, was playing middle linebacker for the first time in who knows how long.

"I really don't know," Thomas said. "I can't remember. Last year sometime? It might have been last year."

Predictably, when Trent Edwards threw a slant to Derek Schouman in one key third-quarter series, the improvising Thomas let the tight end slip from his grasp and pick up 16 yards to set up a field goal.

It’s tough to blame Thomas. The two-time Pro Bowler has made a career wreaking havoc in the backfield. Not since 2003 has he recorded fewer than five sacks in a season. In the Super Bowl against the Giants, two of his five tackles were sacks.

He even got himself a piece of Trent Edwards last night, coming late on a blitz and tossing Edwards to the ground for a 10-yard loss -- and, of course, a 15-yard penalty for tossing him to the ground too hard.

Thomas is not a run-stuffing linebacker. He’s not a tight-end-covering linebacker. He’s a pass-rushing linebacker. He did what he could, but he's still a pass-rushing linebacker.

"Your reads are just different," he said. "Your reads are different. There's a little more action, too, because you're in the middle. It ain't like when the ball is running away from you -- if the ball's run away from you on the outside, you can't get in on the action. In the middle, you're always in the action."

Pass coverage wasn't part of his job description when he arrived at the stadium on Monday afternoon. Without Mayo in the lineup, though, his job description got a little bit longer.

"That's what being a professional is about," Thomas said. "It's about being prepared. Injuries happen, and they're unfortunate. At the same time, you have to be ready for them."

The Patriots were just ready enough to weather the impact of Mayo's injury on Monday night. If it's severe enough to keep him out too much longer, though, an already thin defense might be in serious truoble.

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