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The Houston game on Monday night was, in a way, a coming out party for the Patriots defense. Facing their toughest offense since Peyton Manning came to town, the defense looked aggressive, energetic, and eager to prove they could hold anyone – even the #2 ranked offense in the NFL – down when they play their best game.
And a microcosm of this resurgence was the play of two players: Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork.
Since he was drafted in 2008, Jerod Mayo has built up a strange reputation. He’s always been seen as a steady player, a good tackler, and a smart leader, but the knock on him has always been his lack of “big plays.” Fans were eager for more sacks, more interceptions, and more perceived impact from the linebacker. Well, justified criticism or not, they got their wish Monday night. Mayo seemed to live in the Texans’ backfield, and though he recorded no official sacks, he did hit Schaub twice and pressured him a number of other times.
Wilfork has also been criticized at times by fans and media members who don’t fully understand the responsibilities of a 3-4, 2-gapping nose tackle. But despite his role being similar to what it’s always been, Big Vince seems to be playing a more aggressive game and showing up in flashier ways in 2012. Part of that is likely his slimmer weight, as he dropped nearly 40 pounds in the offseason trying to become more athletic and gain more stamina. But for he and Mayo, the difference in their game is really based on talent that’s been there all along, and just needed the right environment to bring it out.
The biggest catalyst for the transformation of these long-time Patriot defenders is the supporting cast they now have around them. Along the interior of the defensive line, the rotation of Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick is the most solid grouping of DT’s the Patriots have had since Richard Seymour left. Since those two can be trusted to hold their assignments, it frees Wilfork to push upfield a little more, and create more havoc in the backfield rather than simply occupying blockers. Add the immediate impact of Chandler Jones and a continually improving Rob Ninkovich, and it takes a lot of weight (no pun intended) off of Wilfork’s shoulders.
While the Patriots have tried to rebuild this defense in recent years, their options have been limited at some positions. Because of this, the number of places they could use a guy like Mayo were equally limited. They needed him to be the clean up guy in the middle, to make sure runners never broke to that third level. Now with Brandon Spikes able to occupy that role, Mayo is free to cover inside, outside, drop back, rush forward, basically be anywhere Belichick’s mind wants to put him. And he’s got the full slate of skills to do all of it. Donta Hightower has a similar type of versatility, which only adds to the complexities that Belichick can throw at an opposing QB. It’s not as easy to pinpoint Mayo’s assignments anymore, which is working to his advantage, especially on blitzes.
Since the Patriots last won a Super Bowl, the NFL has undergone a fairly radical transformation. New rule changes have caused offensive numbers to skyrocket, and it’s changed the way defense has to be played. There’s more emphasis on pass rushing since receiver coverage is so much harder now, and while it appears the Patriots may have been slow to react to this change, they’re certainly catching up now.
Just look at the defensive end position. Chandler Jones goes down, Jermaine Cunningham comes in and the dropoff is minimal. Then Cunningham gets suspended for a banned substance and is replaced by Trevor Scott, who recorded 2.5 sacks in his two games before Jones returns. This kind of plug-and-play, next-man-up style of production is usually the sign of a strong scheme, as much as it is about individual player talent.
So the scheme has evolved, the players have improved, the depth is outstanding, and wouldn’t you know, the two best players on the Patriots defense are having career seasons. If nothing else, hopefully this helps make fans appreciate what they have always had in Wilfork and Mayo.