Bill Belichick hasn't always had the best defensive players.
Belichick has, however, always had a knack for putting his best defensive players in a position to make the most plays -- especially his linebackers. That's why it's so perplexing to see that Belichick hasn't put Jerod Mayo -- easily the Patriots' best linebacker and maybe the Patriots' best defensive player, period -- in a position to make plays.
The second-year linebacker finished with a team-best 12 tackles and half a sack on Sunday against Miami, but a re-examination of the game tape reveals very little in the way of the game-changing plays the Patriots need from their best defensive players.
Mayo is a run-stopping linebacker, first and foremost. He's not a pass-rusher off the edge like Tully Banta-Cain. His job is to read the gaps on either side of nose tackle Vince Wilfork and hit the running back before he can get through those gaps. The more a team runs the ball, the more chances he has to make plays.
But when a team throws the ball -- and Indianapolis, New Orleans and Miami have thrown the ball with tremendous effectiveness against the Patriots -- that leaves Mayo without a defined role. A coach like Belichick still ought to be able to put his best players in position to make an impact, but he hasn't done so thus far.
By one unofficial count, of the 53 times Chad Henne dropped back to pass, Mayo dropped into zone pass coverage 36 times. But when Mayo dropped into coverage, he normally did so in the middle of the field -- and that gave Henne freedom to throw to pick on the cornerbacks on either side. Think of it this way: Ever-improving safety Brandon Meriweather, to use a baseball term, played deep center field -- and Mayo played a shallow center field. Neither could do very much about anything Henne threw outside the hash marks on either side.
Even when Henne threw the ball inside the hash marks, Mayo didn't react in time to break up the passes. He took a step in the wrong direction on a 15-yard pass to Brian Hartline early in the second quarter, a key third-down pickup that eventually led to the Dolphins' first touchdown. Davone Bess caught a shot pass on a third-and-4 snap on the Dolphins' next drive and capitalized on a missed tackle by Mayo to run for 14 yards.
Dropping Mayo into zone coverage in the middle of the field, in effect, usually took the linebacker completely out of the play.
And in rushing on a half-dozen delayed blitzes, Mayo still found himself caught in no-man's land. On the fourth-and-6 snap that could have iced the game, an obvious passing situation, Mayo followed Henne as he rolled toward the sidelines but never made a serious effort to go after him. It was almost as if he was defending against a scramble -- something Henne has done only eight times all season. Henne had plenty of time to wait for Greg Camarillo to run his hitch route and come back to the ball -- in one-on-one coverage, of course -- for a 13-yard gain.
On a third-and-10 snap earlier in the fourth quarter, Mayo tore through his assigned gap on a delayed blitz only to see Henne throw the ball right through him -- inches from his outstretched hand -- for a 15-yard pass to Ted Ginn. Mayo had responsibility for that gap, and he failed to bat the ball down.
Mayo isn't exactly lacking in versatility. Belichick even lined him up at nose tackle -- he had his hand on the ground and everything -- on a third-and-4 snap early in the third quarter. He remains one of the game's elite run-stopping linebackers, too, as evidenced by his third-and-2 tackle of running back Lex Hilliard late in the third quarter.
But he's done his best work against the run -- and the more the Patriots' secondary struggles, the less other teams are going to run. Opponents are averaging 37.8 pass attempts in the Patriots' five losses but only 28.9 pass attempts in the Patriots' seven wins -- exactly the opposite of what you'd normally expect.
If other teams are going to keep throwing the ball against the Patriots, Belichick is going to have to find a way to turn Mayo into a playmaker when they do.