FOXBOROUGH — The middle of the Patriots’ defense took another hit on Wednesday when the stalwart middle linebacker Jerod Mayo, who underwent surgery Tuesday for a torn pectoral muscle, was placed on season-ending injured reserve.
Mayo suffered the injury late in last Sunday’s win over New Orleans. This is the first time in his six-year career that Mayo has suffered a season-ending injury, though he missed three games in 2009 and two in 2011 because of knee injuries.
Though in the past Bill Belichick has made little secret of his affection for Mayo, whom the Patriots chose 10th overall out of Tennessee in 2008, the coach said little on Wednesday, calling the transaction “a medical decision.”
“Jerod, I think I’ve been on record many times talking about Jerod,” Belichick said. “He does a lot for us on the field, off the field. But we’re going to have to move on.”
A familiar refrain was back in use around Gillette Stadium throughout the day — next man up. The Patriots already have dealt with a season-ending injury to Vince Wilfork, another key member of the defense, both from a player and leadership standpoint, and now is dealing with the loss of Mayo.
“When you lose someone like we did with Vince or Jerod, it’s tough,” Tom Brady said. “But I’d say a lot of teams deal with it, too. You don’t want to feel sorry for yourself. What you realize is somebody has to fill in and do the job. As much as you hate to lose those guys, there’s nothing you can do about it and the season doesn’t end. You have to keep fighting on.”
A five-time captain, Mayo had missed just eight snaps over the first five-plus games, all in the Week 3 win against Tampa Bay.
Last year, Mayo missed only 46 snaps during the regular season, second only to safety Devin McCourty, who missed 21.
Mayo led the Patriots in tackles each of his first five seasons, tying the franchise record set by Vincent Brown (Steve Nelson also led the team in tackles five times, but not in consecutive seasons).
Mayo was on pace to make it six straight seasons, as according to the stats compiled by Patriots coaches, he had a team-high 66 tackles (43 solo) at the time of his injury, as well as 1½ sacks, a pass breakup, and a fumble recovery.
As was the case with Wilfork, the question with Mayo becomes who will step into his role.
“I think it’s one of those things that time will tell who fills that role and who fills those shoes,” linebacker Dane Fletcher said. “It’s not going to be one specific person because you can’t do that with Mayo. It’s going to be the whole team that steps up.”
Second-year linebacker Dont’a Hightower was touted as a ready-made player coming out of the draft because he was at the center of Nick Saban’s defense at Alabama — and Saban’s defense bears many similarities to Belichick’s.
Hightower is the obvious candidate to pick up the biggest share of Mayo’s responsibilities, starting with relaying the defensive signals to his teammates.
On Wednesday, Hightower sounded as if that decision already has been made.
“I look forward to it, talked to Matty P [defensive coordinator Matt Patricia], talked to Pep [linebackers coach Pepper Johnson] about it, so it’s definitely something that I knew down the road that if something ever happened, I knew I would have to step up and do it,” Hightower said. “I’m not nervous about it, it’s something I’ve done before, maybe not in the NFL but I’ve done it before, so I know everybody’s behind me, they support me, so that’s all I can ask for.”
The role is about preparation.
“Prepare for everything, know the game plan, the ins and outs, know what everybody has to do, what position they need to be in, when to make checks, what time to make checks, just being real thorough,” Hightower said. “Basically just being quarterback of the defense.”
But if recent snap counts are an indication, Hightower has work to do. He played in 38 of 71 snaps Oct. 6 against the Bengals (though he was on the injury report that week with a knee ailment), credited with seven tackles. Against the Saints, those numbers dropped to 24 snaps and zero tackles.
“Whatever the reason for it, whatever reason I’m not on the field, I’m sure Bill and whoever else has something to do with [playing time decisions] know why,” Hightower said. “But now, regardless of whether it’s injuries or whatever it is, I have to suck it up and get ready to go out there and do my job.”
In his fourth season, Fletcher could also be in line for a larger role. After missing last season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Fletcher hasn’t played much on defense this season, totaling just 11 snaps. But Hightower noted that Fletcher is a big help to his teammates in the film room, giving hints on what to look for or calls to make.
He also started five games in 2011.
“I feel comfortable as a linebacker. Coming from the preseason I feel comfortable, getting reps in practice, really harnessing in and practicing and watching film this whole season,” Fletcher said. “If I’m the guy that has to step up, so be it.”