If you haven’t heard by now, the New England Patriots will be without Jerod Mayo and Stevan Ridley for the remainder of the 2014 season. They each suffered serious knee injuries in Sunday’s game, and they will be placed on the IR shortly.
But the Patriots cannot dwell on their unfortunate luck, as they have to play a game in just three days.
New England can’t simply replace either of these two guys, particularly Mayo, who I have slated as the fifth or sixth most important player on this team. The Pats are going to have to replace them in a number of different ways, and it starts with a tough matchup on Thursday night against the Jets.
Run A 3-4 Defense
In my mind, this is the best way to keep the run defense intact going forward. By running a 3-4 defense, the Patriots will be able to get their best players on the field, and keep the less talented players on the sidelines. That is not a shot at someone like Deontae Skinner, it’s just the facts.
So hypothetically, if New England were to run a base 3-4 defense, they would have Vince Wilfork, Dominique Easley, and either Casey Walker, or Sealver Siliga as the three down lineman. Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones would man the edge, and Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower would be on the inside. That is honestly a pretty solid front seven. Obviously they would be much better off with Mayo involved, but all things considered, it could work for New England. Those big guys up front can dominate when they want, and we know Ninkovich is excellent in setting the edge.
Collins and Hightower are the ones that must step up going forward, as they will be the ones that have to hold up the run defense on the inside. A 3-4 defense is designed for the defensive line to take up blocks, which allows the linebackers to come in and make the play. Hightower (when healthy) has been excellent, but Collins has been surprisingly inconsistent. He is the guy that has to realize his potential, and play well week in, and week out.
Now when the Pats go to a sub-defense, which in today’s NFL is quite often, they would go back to a regular front four, with Jones and Ninkvoch on the edge. The only difference would be Hightower staying in the game instead of Mayo. Opposing teams will definitely look to target the linebackers in the passing game, specifically Hightower, who has improved tremendously, but is still vulnerable against quicker tight ends.
Running a 3-4 does not mean Deontae Skinner would get zero snaps. Instead, this would allow Bill Belichick to work him in a rotation, not only to keep him fresh, but to minimize the time he has to be on the field in pass coverage. Skinner is competent in the run game, but he is just awful when he is forced to cover.
Three Headed Monster At Running Back
Replacing Stevan Ridley is pretty simple. All the Pats have to do is split up his carries among Shane Vereen, James White, and Jonas Gray going forward. None of these backs have the talent of Ridley, but the combination of these three guys should be enough to replace his production.
Vereen obviously has the most talent of these three, but he isn’t the type of back to play all three downs, and pound it in between the tackles. Giving him the ball in space with lanes to cut is where he is at his best, and that is how New England should utilize him. James White and Jonas Gray are much better suited to handle the bulk of the carries in between the tackles, specifically Gray, who is a load at 5’9, 230 pounds.
Gray is a physical back, and to replace Ridley, you need to have someone that can be physical with the opposing team, and try to establish an early running game. Gray isn’t ultra-talented, but he works hard, he hits hard, and he will do well in this offense.
The bottom line is the Pats are going to replace number 22 with three primary backs. Vereen will probably get the most carries, as he is the most explosive of the three, but look for White and Gray to receive their share of touches going forward.