Jerod Mayo knows what a championship defense looks like from the inside out. He played on one with the 2014 Patriots. Mayo obviously knows what a Bill Belichick defense looks like from the inside out, too, playing his entire eight-year career in New England, learning lessons that took him from NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in Year 1 to Super Bowl champion in Year 7.
So maybe no one is better positioned to judge the championship aspirations of this year’s Patriots defense than their rookie inside linebackers coach, a job Mayo took this past offseason as Belichick replenished his staff after some major turnover. But in contemplating that question Tuesday, days after New England’s defense put on another dominating performance, Mayo proved that his reunion with Belichick has taught him as much about talking about football as it has about coaching it.
Don’t say too much. Don’t look too far ahead. And don’t predict the future.
“Up until this point, the defense has played well, but you know this defense will look totally different in a few months from now,” Mayo said.
“Coach says it all the time: ‘Practice equals game reality,’ and that’s what we kind of live by. So, hopefully we can continue to get better each and every day.
“I don’t want to look out too far, but I think if we go out to work each and every day that we’ll be in a good place when it’s all said and done.”
The conversation after three games is already filled with hyperbole and possibility, earned by the Patriots completely shutting down the Steelers, Dolphins, and Jets. They have yet to surrender a touchdown to another team’s offense.
While cynics can point to the (poor) quality of those opponents — the reeling Steelers, the tanking Dolphins, and the ailing Jets — what Mayo referred to does make you realize how high this ceiling can be nonetheless.
The complexity and versatility of Belichick’s defenses usually cause the unit to start out relatively slowly and get better as the season progresses. And after this past offseason, when de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores left to coach in Miami — a departure that followed that of predecessor Matt Patricia in 2018 and preceded a brief union with Greg Schiano — you figured the defense would need some time to reset. Enter Mayo, the 33-year-old first-time coach who seems to be having an immediate and positive impact.
“Jerod’s done a great job,” Belichick said Tuesday. “His experience as a player in our system is very valuable. We can talk about calls that we can make on the field or identifications and so forth and his perspective of, ‘Yeah, that’s no problem. That’d be easy. That’s easy for us to do,’ or ‘That’s a lot harder because the player is thinking about this, he’s thinking about that,’ and so forth.
“It makes us rethink and have that perspective of how easy it is or isn’t for a player in certain situations. He’s done it and he’s done it under pressure and dealt with a lot of things we currently deal with and so that’s a good perspective to have in the room. We don’t have that from anybody else defensively.”
The obvious extension of that is how well Mayo can relate to the players, a handful of whom he played with and all of whom understand his bona fides. That doesn’t save him from some extra needling from the veterans, but Mayo, as outgoing and personable as a player the NFL has known, can take it.
“Oh, I make fun of him all day,” safety Devin McCourty said. “I mean, he’s a rookie coach, so you get a rookie coach in here, so I ask him, ‘Does he have to clean the coaches’ locker room?’ All those little things.
“But he’s been awesome. I think just having him out here, high energy as a player, even more energy as a coach, so it’s been a pleasure for all of the players, just to have him around the locker room.”
Mayo’s official title is inside linebackers coach, but all indications are that he and secondary coach Steve Belichick have strong input in the defensive game plan and are involved in play calling. Mayo did that job in three preseason games, a sure sign of how much Belichick trusts him.
But maybe the most fun Mayo is having is with a group of linebackers so versatile in their skill sets that he is often floored.
“These guys are totally different than I was as a player,” he said. “I was your classic inside linebacker. When you look across the room, you look at all of our linebackers, they’re able to do a lot of different things.
“Any time you’re able to have guys who can put their hand in the dirt, who can blitz from off the ball, who can cover from off the ball, it’s always beneficial to the coaching staff. So it’s definitely a benefit to all of us.”