How Jerod Mayo Beat the Empty Backfield
Play recognition at the NFL level is a skill developed on a never-ending line. Rookies are subjected to playbooks ten times the size of anything they've seen before, and that's just the ones they're given in training camp - the ones they're hoping never to give back. For Patriots inside linebacker Jerod Mayo, a tenth overall selection in the 2008 draft meant that he was assured no visits from the Turk. However, the expectations for the Tennessee rookie were fairly enormous. The Patriots' linebacker corps is among the NFL's smartest and most disciplined, but there aren't any speed demons in there. This is why Bill Belichick pulled the trigger on the gifted Vol, whose 140 tackles in his junior year tied a school mark untouched since 1990. Against the Jets last Thursday night, Mayo racked up 20 total tackles (16 solo), an amazing amount even for an interior defender. However, it's a tackle he didn't have to make against the Jets that truly revealed his ability to read his opponents' intentions.
On the third play of the game, the Jets lined up with an empty backfield and five receivers (Fig. 1). When Tedy Bruschi cheated up to the line pre-snap, that left Mayo with the middle zone as his responsibility. Brett Favre saw this and threw over the middle to tight end Chris Baker, who was five yards downfield after running a little comeback route. Mayo closed on the play perfectly, made the tackle, and the gain was only five yards.
Fig. 1 - Favre's first pass to Baker
The Jets tried this formation again on the first play of their second drive, from their own 36. This time, Mayo was ready. The Patriots responded with a similar defense, though the cornerbacks played off a bit more and Bruschi chipped Baker inside. Instead of stopping at the 45, Baker tried to extend the play by running a little slant back inside from the 40 after the Bruschi chip, which gave Mayo the time he needed to judge Favre's pass and get in the way. (Fig. 2)
Fig. 2 - Mayo's tip
When Favre threw a 12-yard pass to tight end Dustin Keller over the middle two plays later, the Jets had a back in the backfield pre-snap. The Jets knew that Mayo and the Patriots had sniffed out their empty backfield shenanigans. This was impressive work for a first-year linebacker, and it showed that Mayo has the mental wherewithal as well as the physical ability to play in this most demanding of defenses.
For more of Doug Farrar's analysis check out his work at Doug Farrar is a staff Writer for Football Outsiders, a Panelist for the Washington Post, and a contributor to the Seattle Times.