FOXBOROUGH — Because he’s a team captain for the seventh consecutive season, Jerod Mayo always takes the field for the pregame coin toss.
Because he’s been a defensive leader for the Patriots for so many seasons, Mayo also gets the start at linebacker almost every game. Of the 98 NFL games he has played (playoffs included) since being taken with the 10th pick in the 2008 draft, Mayo has started all but three. The most recent game he didn’t start was the season opener against Pittsburgh, when the Patriots opened in a nickel package, with five defensive backs and just two linebackers.
Mayo played just 10 of 72 snaps against the Steelers, leaving some to wonder whether the reduced playing time had something to do with the serious knee injury he suffered last season, one that required reconstructive surgery and limited him during training camp.
In the three games since the opener, Mayo has played just 62 of 201 snaps: 16 against the Bills, 17 against the Jaguars, and a season-high 29 last Sunday in Dallas. That heavier workload was likely prompted by a rib injury to fellow linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who left the Cowboys game in the first quarter and did not return.
Mayo turned 29 in February, and each of his last two seasons ended after six games because of injuries. With his age, recent injury history, and reduced snap count four games into this season, it’s fair to ask if Mayo’s role for the Patriots has changed.
“I don’t think about it at all,” Mayo said this week as he and his teammates prepared for Sunday night’s game at Indianapolis. “Whenever my number is called, I’ll be ready to go. No change. No change.”
For his first five seasons in the NFL, starting with his rookie year in 2008, there really was no change. Mayo’s familiar No. 51 was easy to spot: He’d be lined up at inside linebacker, playing most every snap and piling up the tackles. He led the league in tackles in 2010 with 193, and led the Patriots in tackles for each of his first five seasons, including twice (2009, 2011) when he missed a total of five games because of injury.
That 2008 season made an impression on Mayo, because he was surrounded by veteran teammates on defense, including Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Junior Seau, and Vince Wilfork. As a rookie, he learned from them, studying how they practiced, how they played, how they led and mentored.
Now, Mayo is doing the same.
“Jerod, from the first year he was here, no matter what the situation is, comes into the building and just has the same steady attitude of working hard to get better and to try to improve himself,” said defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.
“It’s certainly a great thing for younger players to see and look at and understand how to be a professional football player, how to approach the game every week where the preparation really has to be consistent. The process is the same.”
For younger players such as Jonathan Freeny, a linebacker who signed with the Patriots as a free agent after spending four seasons with the Dolphins, learning from Mayo has helped ease the transition.
“He’s most definitely a mentor and a leader; it shows in everything he does,” said Freeny. “The way he prepares each week. Out there on the field he’s never shy to call out something he sees, or alert his guys to a play he might see coming. A lot of times you’ll see him moving the D-line and getting them in positions they need to be to make the play.
“Even when we’re studying film, he’s constantly talking and asking guys what they have on this play. He’s always vocal in trying to make sure everybody is on the right page and communicating.”
Freeny was told that sounds like a coach.
“He’s almost like a coach on the field,” Freeny said. “He’s extremely smart, he knows what he’s doing out there, and he’s always in tune with what’s going on.”
Another big reason Mayo’s snap count is down is that the Patriots are utilizing their sub defense more often. Rushing four off the line and frequently using five defensive backs, that leaves room for only two linebackers, and those have typically been Hightower and Jamie Collins.
Through four games, Hightower has played 179 of 273 defensive snaps (he missed 63 against the Cowboys after getting injured). Collins has played even more; he was a perfect 72 for 72 in games against the Steelers, Bills, and Cowboys, and played 47 of 57 snaps against the Jaguars.
Not surprisingly, linebackers lead the Patriots in tackles. But instead of Mayo, it’s Collins first with 30 stops (not to mention 3½ sacks and three forced fumbles), followed by Hightower with 26. Mayo is 13th on the team in tackles, with eight through four games.
He might not be making as much of a statistical contribution to the defense as in past seasons, but Mayo’s value to the Patriots is still there.
“Jerod provides a lot for us, both on and off the field,” Patricia said. “Like everybody on the defense, based on game plan, guys are going to be on the field, off the field. We’re just trying to put everybody in the right position to make plays.
“We’re fortunate to have guys who we can sub in and out of the game, depending on what we’re trying to do. He’s certainly an integral part of that.”
Now in his eighth NFL season, Mayo knows the drill, knows what he can bring to the defense. Even if it means a reduced role on the field.
“I came into a great situation here where I had mentors, so I know how valuable it is,” Mayo said. “Work hard, study a lot of film, go out there and perform.”
He is healthy enough to be able to do that, after two seasons cut short by injury. It might not be at the same level as seasons past, but Mayo seems unconcerned about what lies ahead, or what he’s done in the past. He’s very much an in-the-moment person.
“Honestly, I live life day to day,” he said. “I always appreciate health. It’s good to be out there with the guys.”