FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The players lining up on defense for New England have changed throughout the season. Injuries and inconsistency forced backups to play key roles, some with little preparation.
Fortunately for the Patriots, Jerod Mayo is still around.
The defensive captain directs teammates to the spots where they should line up and is the Patriot most likely to make the tackle. He’s had more than 100 of them in each of his four NFL seasons, the first Patriot to do that, and led the team each year.
“You always want to be consistent,” the middle linebacker said. “You always want to be depended on.”
With a bye week before the top-seeded Patriots play their divisional playoff game on Jan. 14, Mayo and his teammates have more time to let their bruises heal and work together in practice.
Except for two games that he missed with a left knee injury that was expected to keep him out longer, Mayo has been a mainstay in the middle.
He made 103 tackles on a team that allowed the second most yards in the NFL, an average of 411.1 per game. With three defensive linemen, three linebackers and three defensive backs on injured reserve, he’s had to coordinate a shifting cast.
The Patriots also were without injured starters Patrick Chung at safety and Brandon Spikes at linebacker for seven straight games before they returned last Sunday in a 49-21 win over the Buffalo Bills.
“It does make it a little tougher having new guys in there,” Mayo said, but “we all work with each other in the meeting rooms, on the practice field, things like that. So it takes a little getting used to, but at the same time guys have done an excellent job stepping in.”
Mayo was a big hit from the start of his career after the Patriots took him out of Tennessee with the 10th pick of the 2008 draft. He had seven tackles in the season opener and a career-high 23 against the New York Jets and was named The Associated Press defensive rookie of the year.
He missed three games in 2009 but still had 113 tackles. And last season, he led the NFL with 193 tackles and was named to the Pro Bowl for the first time. The numbers, though, may not be Mayo’s most important contribution.
He also has the football smarts.
“He’s really, really intelligent,” defensive tackle Kyle Love said. “He’s probably one of the smartest linebackers in the league and, on top of that, he plays pretty well.”
And, for the first time in his career, he had an interception this season — two in fact. The first came in the fourth quarter of a 31-24 win over the Indianapolis Colts that improved the Patriots record to 9-3. He had a more important one the following week, picking off a pass inside the Patriots 10-yard line with 20 seconds left to preserve a 34-27 win over the Washington Redskins.
This weekend, he’ll have a chance to relax in front of his television and watch teams the Patriots might play next. It will be the Cincinnati Bengals if they beat the Houston Texans. Otherwise, it will be the winner of the Denver Broncos-Pittsburgh Steelers game.
“I’m going to watch a couple of them,” Mayo said, “probably as a fan, a little bit as a scout.”
He’ll spend next week preparing — and helping other defensive players prepare — for whichever team comes to Foxborough.
“He’s the captain of our defense,” safety James Ihedigbo said. “He’s the signal caller. He’s kind of the mastermind behind it. We all look to him for his leadership and direction in terms of game-time adjustments. He definitely does a lot.”
One thing he and his teammates haven’t done is help the Patriots get off to fast starts. That was a problem in the last three games before they rallied to win.
“It’s been stressed all year (by the coaches),” Mayo said. “We haven’t put together 60 minutes yet. I think we’ll be a good team if we could ever put together four quarters of football. We practice it every day.”
How do they do that?
“Just build in the situation in practice. That’s what the coaches do,” he said. “They get paid to put the pressure on us.”
They should be doing it to Mayo for quite a while. Last month, he signed a five-year contract extension worth a reported $50 million that starts in 2013.
“I love it around here,” he said. “This is all I know. I love the coaches. I love the owners. I just love being around the guys.
“This is my family and I want to finish my career here.”