A pessimist believes that regardless of how bad thing are, they can always be worse.
Unfortunately for a Patriots defense that has struggled mightily through the first four games of 2011, a pessimistic view might also be the most realistic snapshot of the current state of affairs.
In the midst of giving up 500-plus yards to the Raiders in Sunday's 31-19 win at Oakland, Patriots All-Pro linebacker Jerod Mayo limped off with a knee injury. The defensive co-captain needed a cart to take him to the O.co Coliseum locker room for halftime and did not return.
It didn't take long for multiple published reports to surface indicating that Mayo could miss a month of action to the injury. Though it's clearly not a season-ending type issue, it's a major concern for a defense that's very much been a work in progress through the first four weeks in a new 4-3 scheme and is on the verge of a meeting with the Jets to begin what was seen as the tough middle portion of its schedule.
Mayo has been good but not great so far playing the Will spot in Bill Belichick's new-look front. He led the team with 25 tackles through three weeks of action, having also notched a forced fumble.
Maybe most importantly, though, is the fact that the No. 10 overall pick is New England's primary play-caller and leader in the middle of the defense. He's a noted student of the game and film rat, the closest thing the Patriots have to an extension of Belichick on the field.
In the second half of last week's win over the Raiders, Gary Guyton saw most of the action in Mayo's stead. Belichick, at list for a short span of action, seemed happy with how his defense the absence of its leader.
"We had our moments. There were some good things (and) there were some other things we need to do a better job of," Belichick said after reviewing film of the action. "Gary basically replaced Jerod in our regular defense and then we had some other guys in sub defenses. So we had some different packages in there, it wasn't a Ferris wheel of guys. There was actually a plan there, believe it or not."
Guyton, who entered the league as an undrafted player the same year that Mayo was New England's top pick, has plenty of experience doing a variety of jobs for the Patriots D.
"Gary and Jerod came in together. They're very close, personally and (they) play well next to each other. They have great communication and both guys kind of can do what the other one does," Belichick added. "They flip assignments and positions regularly on the defense just to change up the looks, just to have a different guy doing it -- within the structure of the defense, having different guys doing it to make the offense read it differently and so forth. I think Gary has good experience and he knows all the positions -- any inside linebacker part of the defense, regardless of what our front is and so forth, he's pretty adept and he's a real sharp guy.
"Well, we'll see what the game plan is going forward here. But certainly Gary has had a big role in our defense over the last three years and I'm sure he'll continue to. He's a key guy for us and he's done a good job. He's done various things: played in sub defenses, played in regular defenses, played our middle linebacker spot, played our other inside linebacker spot, what we'll call the Will. He's done a lot of things."
Another option to help fill in for Mayo, is another former undrafted player. Over his year-plus in New England Dane Fletcher has made the transition from college defensive end at Montana State to NFL inside linebacker. He's been a rotational this season and could see his role expand in the month-plus that Mayo is expected to miss.
"I think Dane has taken a big jump from where he was last year," Belichick said. "Last year, he came in really as a converted defensive lineman. (He) made an impact for us in the kicking game. At other points in the year, (he) did some things situationally on defense. This year, he came in and played inside linebacker right from the beginning of the year. He's way ahead of where he was last year. There's just really no comparison. He got a good year of experience and he definitely built on that. He's a smart guy, works hard, he's in good condition, he's a good athlete, runs well (and) he's physical.
"We have a lot of confidence in Dane. I'm sure whatever we ask him to do, he'll work hard to do it. I have no doubt about that."
So while there's no doubt the Patriots will miss their All-Pro linebacker and maybe best overall defensive player, Belichick seems confident the team has the bodies in place to gets past this bump in the team's defensive road.
HOT TOPIC: Can the Patriots Stop Anybody?
--QB Tom Brady threw two touchdowns against Oakland to move past Joe Montana (273) and tie Vinny Testaverde (275) for eighth place on the NFL's all-time list. Johnny Unitas is seventh with 290 touchdown passes. Brady also now has 114 career wins, three behind Montana.
Brady threw for a season-low 226 yards in Sunday's win at Oakland. After opening the season setting a record for the most passing yards in any three-game stretch in NFL history, Brady fell just 4 yards shy of Kurt Warner's record (1,557) for most yards in the first four games of a season.
--RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis scored on a 1-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, his 21st career TD run. He is now tied with Laurence Maroney and Antowain Smith for eighth place in franchise history. Since the beginning of the 2010 season, Green-Ellis has 16 touchdown runs, which ranks second in the NFL to Houston's Arian Foster.
Green-Ellis had a season-high 75 yards on 16 carries in Oakland, including a 1-yard touchdown. Green-Ellis leads New England through four games with 197 yards rushing and three rushing touchdowns.
--WR Wes Welker had 158 receiving yards, giving him 616 yards for the season, which puts him on pace for 2,464 yards. The NFL record for most yards gained in a season is 1,848 by Jerry Rice in 1995. The Patriots' team record is 1,493 yards by Randy Moss in 2007. Welker's career high is 1,348 yards in 2009.
Welker had another big day in beating the Raiders, notching games highs with nine catches for 158 yards (17.6-yard average) and a touchdown. Through four games Welker leads the NFL on a record pace with 40 catches for 616 yards (15.4 avg.) with five touchdowns.
--RB Stevan Ridley, a third-round pick out of LSU, saw his most significant snaps of his young career and responded with 97 yards on 10 carries against the Raiders, including a 33-yard touchdown. Ridley has 18 carries for 148 yards on the season for an impressive 8.2-yard average.
--TE Rob Gronkowski caught just one pass for 15 yards in Oakland as he found the coverage from the Raiders tighter than it had been through the first three weeks. As the Patriots only healthy tight end, the second-year starter also played every offensive snap in the game.
--WR Chad Ochocinco continues to be slow to get acclimated to the New England offense, sharing third-receiver reps with Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater in Oakland. Ochocinco did catch two passes for 26 yards in the win, the only player for New England other than Welker to record multiple receptions.
--RB Danny Woodhead limped off with what appeared to be an ankle injury against the Raiders, finishing with just two carries for 13 yards.
--S Patrick Chung notched his first interception of the season as he returned to the lineup after missing a game with a thumb injury. Chung, wearing a cast on his right hand/wrist, held on when Jason Campbell inexplicably threw the ball right to him in the end zone.
--NT Vince Wilfork notched his second interception of the season, and his career, when he slipped between Jason Campbell and Darren McFadden in Oakland. Wilfork's pair of interceptions ranks second on New England, trailing only cornerback Kyle Arrington.
--WR Deion Branch has been very quiet of late. The former Super Bowl MVP was shut out in Week 3 in Buffalo and barely avoided going catch-less on Sunday with just a 4-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
--LB Jerod Mayo left Sunday's game with a reported MCL sprain and could miss at least a month, according to published reports.
--DT Kyle Love left midway through Sunday's game with a knee injury but ultimately returned and reported no lingering pain afterward.
--LB Rob Ninkovich left the game with a right leg injury that has plagued him for a while. He did not return, but afterward said he was simply suffering from soreness.
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