If you can only do one thing in the NFL, make sure you do it fantastically. Chicago’s Devin Hester is almost exclusively a punt-returner, but he’s the best punt-returner there’s ever been. Dallas’ Dan Bailey is just a place-kicker, but he’s only missed once in a season in which seven of the Cowboys’ 11 games have been decided by four points or fewer.
And for the New England Patriots, Jerod Mayo continues to be the best pure tackler on the team. He might lag behind tight ends, he might rarely pick off a pass or blitz the quarterback, but he doesn’t allow yards after receptions. He stops running backs cold. He doesn’t allow big plays.
The Patriots made Mayo a captain before the 2010 season – the best of his four-year career, earning him both a Pro Bowl and an All-Pro selection. A league-leading 175 tackles, two sacks, five defensed passes, a forced fumble and three recoveries – all last season, Mayo sent a stern, painful message to opposing teams: “don’t test me.”
Mayo hasn’t done nearly as much for the Patriots this season. He leads the front seven with 52 tackles, but that’s where his contributions stop. An early-October MCL injury that cost him two games might be in part responsible.
Some would argue Mayo’s poor numbers reflect a down season for the 10th-overall 2008 draft pick. Quite to the contrary: Mayo’s fewer tackles are a testament to just how good he really is.
Teams no longer challenge Mayo by throwing against his coverage. Quarterbacks know that even if the receiver catches the ball, he won’t get much after the catch. And a receiver worrying about Mayo’s shoulder crashing into his chest is way more likely to bobble the pass.
New England’s secondary is so riddled with injuries right now they’re (somewhat successfully) using Julian Edelman at cornerback. And even when the secondary is healthy, the Patriot pass-defense is still the worst in the NFL.
Given the choice of throwing against a hard-hitting, sure-tackling linebacker like Mayo, or the moderately incompetent Sergio Brown, who do you think most QBs are going after? When going over the middle, teams are finding it less risky to chuck the ball 15 yards deeper and go after the safeties instead of the linebackers. Mayo is easily the reason why.
New England’s defense may not be very good, but they’re still light years better against the run than the pass. Whenever the run-defense makes a play, Mayo is somewhere around the ball – plugging up running lanes, protecting the edge, preventing first downs.
Opponents have had to rely on a one-dimensional passing attack that requires far better synchronization and rhythm to pull off and has a far higher risk of turnover. The result has been a four-way tie in the NFL with 16 interceptions, with Kyle Arrington leading the league with seven.
The Patriots defense has lagged this season behind an inconsistent-at-best pass-rush and oft-injured defensive backs. The team’s best defensive weapon has been Tom Brady and the offense.
By scoring 30+ points a game, the Patriots simultaneously limit their opponents’ scoring opportunities and force them to execute perfectly when they do have the ball. Few teams can execute perfectly all the time, but that’s what big deficits against the Patriots force them to do.
The offense has bailed out the defense this season. But when someone on the defense has had to bail out the rest of the team, more often than not that player is Mayo.