FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots' defense had its first test to see if it could handle life without Jerod Mayo Thursday night against the Jets.
The Patriots certainly didn't ace the exam, but at least they received a passing grade in a 27-25 win.
Playing without their defensive leader and signal caller after Mayo was placed on injured reserve with a torn patellar tendon, the Patriots' defense got gashed by the Jets, allowing 218 rushing yards on 5.1 yards per carry. They let the Jets dominate the flow of the game with 40:54 of possession and 9 of 16 conversions on third down, but held the Jets to four field goals in the first half, and escaped with a win after Chris Jones blocked Nick Folk's 58-yard field goal on the final play of the game.
"We know it's not going to be easy without him," safety Devin McCourty said of Mayo. "And we knew this game wasn't going to be easy, period. But we always say, with a bunch of field goals, it's harder to beat you."
The Patriots missed the heartbeat of their defense with Mayo, their leading tackler and captain, now on the shelf. Chris Ivory ran the ball right down their throats, rushing for 107 yards on 21 carries with a touchdown. Chris Johnson added 61 yards on 13 carries, and Geno Smith was Houdini in the pocket, escaping for 37 yards on seven scrambles.
But to a man, New England's defenders said the linebackers asked to replace Mayo weren't the reason that the Jets had such success running the football. The Patriots played a lot of 3-4 defense, with Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins playing on the inside and Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich on the outside. In sub packages, Collins and Hightower remained on the field, and safety Patrick Chung often came down into the box to help.
It didn't work that well, but the defenders said there were myriad factors at play besides the loss of Mayo.
"It's not all on [the linebackers]. It's all of us. We can clean it up and make it a lot smoother for all of us," Vince Wilfork said.
The Jets called 50 run plays compared to 30 passes, but a perturbed Rex Ryan said it had "nothing to do without Mayo or anyone else — Nick Buoniconti."
Instead, the defensive linemen put the onus on themselves for not getting off blocks and getting pushed around by the Jets' offensive line. This wasn't the first time the Patriots' defense got pushed around, either — the Dolphins rushed for 191 yards and the Chiefs for 207 yards against New England, with Mayo in the lineup.
Wilfork said the short week prevented the Patriots from practicing their new assignments.
"I just think short week, putting in some things that we really didn't have a chance to go over or run a lot, get the reps like we do in a normal week," Wilfork said. "Whether we couldn't get communication, or half the people got the communication other half didn't. We were basically playing two different defenses."
"At the same time, you can't be disappointed with a win in the division."
Defensive tackle Casey Walker, who had five tackles and a sack, also said the defensive line had significant communication problems on Thursday night.
"If we were on point from the start, I don't think some of those runs would have happened," Walker said. "We've got to communicate better. A lot of their successful runs, I would say, were on us. Listening to High, to Jamie for any calls and stunts, sometimes we didn't get those or we didn't run them. If we would've ran them, then their success of running the ball would've been limited.
"We've got some things to iron out this week. But you know, it was a short week for us."
That's where the Patriots will miss Mayo most — in communicating the defense on the field and getting everyone lined up in the right place. But the Patriots have faith in Hightower, who wore the green dot on Thursday night after missing the last two games with a knee injury of his own.
Hightower wore the green dot last year, too, when Mayo suffered a season-ending pectoral injury in Week 6. Walker said that the communication issues were on the defensive linemen, not Hightower.
"I think High said it earlier — we've been prepared for this," McCourty said. "We have a group where we got guys that can step up and step into different roles. But now it's keep improving, see what we're going to do with the guys that were out there."
The Patriots' first game without Mayo was rough last year, too. It was also Week 7, also against the Jets, and the Patriots allowed 177 rushing yards as New York won by 3 points. The Patriots then went 7-2 down the stretch as they figured out how to win games without their defensive leader.
"That's a tough situation that unfortunately we had to deal with before last year," Ninkovich said. "I'm not taking anything away from what the Jets did. They have a tough running back who is a tough, downhill runner. But I think we're going to continue to get better as the season progresses."
The Patriots better progress and learn how to get by without Mayo. They no longer have the excuse of having a short week and no time to prepare.
"Obviously every game we play, I don't care what the score is, how we play on defense, you can draw something up and say, 'This would've been better with Mayo out there, because he's one of our best players,' " McCourty said. "He's one of the better linebackers in the NFL, period. I think if people rely on that, they'll be saying that for the rest of the season."