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Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Can Patriots fill void on defense?

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The script has been flipped for the 2013 New England Patriots, as the defense has been the unit that has mostly led the way. It's been a long time since we could say that.

But now, with injuries ravaging the unit, the question naturally being asked is if the casualties will result in a dip in performance.

To lose defensive tackle Vince Wilfork (torn Achilles) and linebacker Jerod Mayo (torn pectoral muscle) to season-ending injuries within two weeks of each other, while at the same time top cornerback Aqib Talib (hip) is ailing, are three direct hits to the heart of the defense. They are arguably the team's three best defenders.

In quantifying their value, it helps to revisit something Bill Belichick said two weeks ago about playing defense in today's NFL.

"From week to week, you face a lot of different challenges and a lot of different offenses in this league," he said. "Trying to find the right matchups, it's easy when you have a player that's really good at everything. It's a little bit harder when you have to find somebody [and] work combinations of players that maybe excel more in one phase of the game than others."

Wilfork, Mayo and Talib are good at everything, which is why any time Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia drew up a game plan, they could count on them to be a big part of it -- whether it was in base, nickel or dime. Most teams only have a few of those good-at-everything players who are part of every package, while the rest are "situational" types whose playing time will fluctuate based on that week's specific plan.

For the Patriots, this how we'd break it down right now:

Part of every game plan

Game-plan specific players

Naturally, when players in the first category aren't available, it thrusts some players from the second tier into expanded roles. One example this week is Hightower, who will wear the communication device in his helmet and lead the huddle. That means he'll likely play every snap, as Mayo did, even though he's logged a 69.2 percent playing time clip through six games, sometimes coming off in the nickel and always in the dime.

Dont'a Hightower
Linebacker Dont'a Hightower could get more opportunities as a pass-rusher in 2014.
Are players such as Hightower capable of making the full-fledged jump, or at the least, being a bigger part of a plan? That's really what this comes down to and what will ultimately answer the question of whether the Patriots' defense can succeed without Wilfork, Mayo and possibly Talib.

It's part of the foundation of Belichick's team-building philosophy, which places a premium on the importance of depth. It's why he might be more apt to trade down in the draft for more picks, manage the salary cap with discipline that sometimes can seem inflexible, and why there is usually such volatile movement on the back end of the roster and practice squad in late August as he reshapes them with the future in mind.

"That's what we're here for every day," Belichick said Wednesday when asked about the importance of depth and the process of building it. "Everybody that's here -- the players on the active roster, the players on the practice squad, even players in training camp that aren't here -- they've all been coached, they've worked, they've prepared and some of them get a chance to play, some of them don't and then over the course of the year, sometimes that changes. Everybody here is working on a daily basis trying to get better.

"Who knows exactly how the wheel is going to spin, who is going to be where, but we all have to prepare for that."

The wheel is really spinning these days for the Patriots, and as quarterback Tom Brady reminded on Wednesday, it's not like we haven't seen it before. We all remember when Brady went down in 2008. Season-ending injuries to Rodney Harrison (2005) and Ty Law (2004) also were devastating blows.

So just when one might think the loss of Wilfork and Mayo could be too much, one also can point to the team's 2004 Super Bowl season. That was the year when injuries piled up and receiver Troy Brown was playing cornerback at times and unheralded free agent Earthwind Moreland had a key role at the position as well.

Make no mistake, the Wilfork and Mayo injuries cut deep for the Patriots, and if Talib is out for an extended period of time, that might be the most devastating blow of all.

But history tells us not to count out the Patriots when things like this happen. Their depth has usually served them well.