FOXBOROUGH -- He is now, literally and figuratively, the man in the middle.
All you had to do was watch the preseason opener against the Eagles last week: linebacker Jerod Mayo was in the center of the action in the 4-3. He was the one with the communication system in his helmet, making the calls, running the defense and making sure everyone was exactly where he needed to be. It was heady stuff for a second-year player out of Tennessee.
But then again, Mayo isn’t your average second-year player.
“You talk to Jerod, he’ll want more on his shoulders. He’s that type of player. He wants to be good. He wants to be really good,” said veteran Tedy Bruschi, who spent much of the 2008 season lined up next to Mayo at the inside linebacker spot in New England’s 3-4 defense. “You can really see that he desires to be a good player.”
Last season, the Patriots had high hopes for the first-round pick out of Tennessee, but it’s hard to imagine a rookie year working out any better. He was on the field for almost the entire season at the inside linebacker position in New England’s 3-4 defensive scheme, starting every game and leading the Patriots with 139 tackles, including a season-high 23 in an overtime loss to the Jets.
As a result, he was named the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year, and created a name for himself as one of the finest young linebackers in the league.
Now, with Bruschi likely in a reduced role and Mike Vrabel gone to Kansas City, he has become one of the de facto leaders of the New England defense after just one season in the NFL. Mayo is still deferential when it comes to speaking about the rest of the veterans on the defensive side of the football, but he knows more will be asked of him in 2009, and he’s ready to respond.
“I came into the year expecting to have more on my plate, as far as making the checks, making the calls,” he said. “Last year, we had guys like [Mike] Vrabel and [Tedy] Bruschi and Adalius [Thomas], all those guys who were in the system for a long time make the calls and I was just out there listening to what they had to say.
“It would be a surprise if they didn’t ask me to do more this year.”
Even though Mayo insists his new role doesn’t change things from a leadership perspective, it’s hard to believe him. Last year, he spoke earnestly of just trying to get the playbook down and understand the nuances of the New England defense. This year, he’s talking about “trying to get all my guys on the same page” and how “this year, I kind of took it on my shoulders to help the younger guys and even some of the older guys.”
“I wouldn’t call it a leadership role,” he said when asked about his new responsibilities. “We have some great guys on this team who have been here for a long time. Bruschi, I think this is his 14th year. He’s been here for a long time. He provides that kind of leadership. Adalius provides the vocal leadership that we need. I’m just going out there trying to do my job and help the rest of the team.”
To that end, Mayo has picked up where he left off at the end of the 2008 season with a tremendous training camp, dominating drills and generally causing fits for the offense. On Monday, he blew up a drill meant to test running backs in blitz pickup by rolling right over newly acquired Chris Taylor.
In addition, he certainly looked natural directing traffic in last Thursday’s preseason opener against the Eagles. In that contest, New England played a ton of 4-3, a change of pace from the 3-4 scheme they’ve offered on a fairly regular basis in years past. According to Mayo, if the Patriots move to a 4-3 base defense, even though he’ll be the only man in the middle, his role won’t be dramatically altered.
“It doesn’t really change that much,” he said. “I played inside in the 3-4, so it’s a little bit easier. I don’t have to wrestle with those linemen as much.”
In fact, after having to shed those pesky guards while working in the 3-4, Mayo seems like a man who could make Bruschi’s prediction of greatness for the 23-year-old come true in 2009.
“He’s going to have a lot more on his shoulders than last year,” Bruschi said. “You look at him as a rookie last year, but now, you look at him as an established leader of this team and leader of this defense. That’s something I’m sure he’ll do fine with.”