Tully Banta-Cain made a brief appearance in the Patriots’ locker room at Gillette Stadium yesterday, sporting a sweatshirt with No. 97 across the front.
Banta-Cain, of course, wears No. 95 on the field. Jarvis Green, who wears No. 97, underwent knee surgery last week and could miss up to a month. And while Banta-Cain might have taken the concept of replacing Green a little too literally, there's something to be said for the way the pass-rushing specialist has fortified the Patriots' front seven so far this season.
Banta-Cain had 43 tackles and 5.5 sacks in the final season of his first go-round with New England, a season that earned him a lucrative free-agent deal with San Francisco. Through seven games this season, he's on an even better pace -- he has 21 tackles and three sacks and, according to ProFootballFocus.com, has been the Patriots' second-best defensive player so far this season.
When the linebacker/defensive end re-signed with the Patriots, most assumed his role would be as a pass-rusher on third down and as a tackler on special teams. Against Tampa Bay a week ago, however, Banta-Cain played 50 of the game's 61 snaps and finished with six tackles and four quarterback hurries, including two hits on the quarterback.
He started the season played defensive end as part of a 4-3 defensive front but has made a seamless transition to outside linebacker as part of a 3-4 defensive front. The two games he's played at outside linebacker, according to ProFootballFocus.com, have been two of his three best games of the season.
"He came into a situation already knowing about the situation when he came back from San Francisco," Patriots defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "He’s worked really hard. He's prepared very hard. I think he knows what the expectations were coming back here. He knows what Bill (Belichick) wants and what we expect. He adapted so easily because we already all knew him and knew what he could do and what his strengths and weaknesses were."
The burden of replacing Green, of course, won't fall much on Banta-Cain unless the Patriots decide to go back to a four-man defensive line. The likelier scenario is one in which the Patriots plug in Mike Wright at defensive end as part of a three-man front with Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork, giving them maximum flexibility both up front and in their corps of linebackers.
But replacing someone who's not there is something this Patriots defense knows all about. Tedy Bruschi is gone. Rodney Harrison is gone. Richard Seymour is gone. Mike Vrabel is gone. Jerod Mayo even missed three games with a knee injury -- and the Patriots won two of those three games.
There's no extra pressure with Green out of the lineup for the indefinite future. It's just business as usual.
"We put ourselves under a lot of pressure just to be accountable," Wilfork said. "When we step on the field, we want to make sure we play at a high level."
But not many have played at a higher level than Banta-Cain has so far this season.