FOXBOROUGH - There are times, if you watch closely, when Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo will be shouting at his teammates on the defensive line in front of him, then turning his head and sending the same loud message to his secondary mates. The opposing offense is getting set, seconds away from snapping the football. Mayo, ever the student, has his eyes wide open, darting from side to side, searching for clues.
Sometimes, he is making sure the Patriots are aligned properly, based on the defense he has called. Sometimes, it’s alerting teammates to the other team’s tendencies, based on what he sees, and what he has seen watching countless hours of film. Sometimes, he is predicting, before the ball is snapped, what play is about to be run.
Predicting another team’s play?
“He’s right a lot of times,’’ said cornerback Devin McCourty. “I think that’s why you see him out there making so many plays.’’
Making plays is something Mayo has done since the day he arrived in Foxborough. Barring something unexpected, Mayo will lead the Patriots in tackles for the fourth consecutive season - each year he’s been with the team. He takes a team-high 96 tackles into today’s regular-season finale against Buffalo, despite missing two games to a knee injury.
The Patriots offense might get most of the attention - rightfully so, and especially today, with questions swirling about Tom Brady’s left shoulder - but Mayo has been a consistent presence on a defense that has taken more criticism than a presidential candidate. Sure, he leads a unit ranked last in the league in multiple categories. But he leads.
“When he first came in, you kind of understood and knew that he was a born leader, that he was the type of guy that knew what it took and did what it takes to be that guy,’’ said veteran running back Kevin Faulk, who knows a thing or two about team leadership. “Whatever the situation calls for, he’ll do what needs to be done.’’
Mayo’s leadership can take many forms. It can be quiet words of encouragement to a particular teammate or a more vocal plea directed at everyone. It is returning quickly from injury; he has had knee injuries in two of his four seasons, costing him just five games. It might be calling someone out in a film session, or asking the coaches to run something again in practice if it’s not done to his satisfaction.
“You have to get it right in practice,’’ said Mayo. “If you can’t get it right in practice, you probably won’t get it right in games.
“I just try to lead by example. I’m not sure what it takes, I just try to come to work every day and do my job. That’s the Patriot Way, but it’s also the way I’ve always done it.’’
His talk isn’t cheap
A first-round draft pick in 2008 (10th overall) out of Tennessee, Mayo started out with the Patriots as an inside linebacker in their 3-4 scheme. With the Patriots switching to a 4-3 base for much of this season, Mayo has been all over: He can play outside linebacker and use his athleticism and speed to make plays even from the weak side, or he can stay in the middle, which he has done recently with Brandon Spikes still injured.
No matter where he is on the field - and it can change play to play - Mayo is one of the few defensive Patriots who demands attention.
“He doesn’t put himself above anybody else,’’ said Tracy White, a fellow linebacker whose locker is next to Mayo’s. “That’s a good thing. You get more comfortable around a guy like that instead of a guy who thinks he’s better than anybody else. He’s definitely not that, he makes you comfortable on and off the field.’’
Said McCourty: “I think the biggest thing is guys listen. When you talk about respect in the locker room, when he’s talking, you’re trying to hear what he says, because it’s usually valuable information. He’s not talking just to hear himself talk.’’
There hasn’t been much to brag about this season, at least from a defensive standpoint. The Patriots have given up the most total yardage and the most passing yardage in the league, and opponents have struck for 86 plays of at least 20 yards, by far the most allowed in the league. But they are 12-3 and a win away from wrapping up the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed. The likely No. 1 seed in the NFC, the Packers, have the 31st-ranked defense in the league, and they’re 14-1.
“I’ve played a lot of football, not just in the pros, but college and everything, and I’ve been on great defenses, and I’ve been on bad defenses,’’ Mayo said. “At the end of the day, I don’t pay attention to anything in the media. I rarely watch television. In my free time I play a little ‘Call of Duty.’ ’’
He might be the Patriots’ squadron leader, but even his numbers are down this year. According to the team, Mayo had 139 tackles as a rookie, 114 in 2009, and an NFL-best 193 last season, when he was named to his first Pro Bowl. With 96 tackles in 13 games this season, Mayo is on pace to finish with a career-low 103.
One knock on Mayo during his first three seasons was his lack of big plays: He had just 3.5 sacks, no interceptions, and three fumble recoveries during that stretch.
This year, though, he has made his first two interceptions, forced a fumble, and had two sacks last week.
“Hopefully that’s going to continue,’’ Mayo said. “I’m always talking about tackling the ball carrier, but adding those interceptions is like icing on the cake.’’
Getting the deal done
Respect for the defensive unit he anchors might be slow in coming - if it’s coming at all - but individual respect always has come Mayo’s way. In addition to last season’s Pro Bowl, he was a near-unanimous choice as Defensive Rookie of the Year for the 2008 season, and made his first All-Pro team last year.
More recently, and more importantly to Mayo, the Patriots showed that he’s a big piece of their long-term plans, as they signed him two weeks ago to a five-year contract extension beginning with the 2013 season. The new deal is for $50 million, with $27 million guaranteed.
“Jerod’s been a good player since he’s been here,’’ said Nick Caserio, the Patriots’ director of player personnel. “He’s done a lot of things to help our football team both on and off the field, and the goal was to try to keep him here as long as we can, and that’s what we did.’’
Said Mayo: “This is all I know. I love the area, I love the coaches, I just love being around here. Getting that [deal] done, it’s like a weight being lifted off my shoulders, and now I can just focus on playing football.
“It wasn’t really bothering me, I still had another year left, but it’s good to know that you’re wanted, especially by a winning organization like New England. It just feels good to call this my home.’’
He’s used to making the calls. As a defensive captain for a third straight season, Mayo’s job is to relay the signals sent in from the sideline. He also has made it his job to know enough about all facets of the Patriots defense to notice when someone is out of position.
As for his psychic pre-snap skill and his willingness to warn his teammates what play is coming, Mayo deflects praise. A magician, after all, never tells the audience how the trick works.
“You’ve got to communicate,’’ Mayo finally offers. “That’s what football is all about, it’s a team sport. Making sure everyone is on the same page, that’s my job, and I take pride in that.’’