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How will the Patriots repair their defensive foundation?

When Vince Wilfork went down with a season-ending Achilles injury two weeks ago, there was concern the New England defense would crumble without its massive nose tackle foundation. Instead, the Patriots submitted two solid defensive performances with rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones filling in for Wilfork.

The foundation took another huge blow last Sunday when linebacker Jerod Mayo was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. New England has good depth at linebacker in four-year veteran Dane Fletcher and rookie Jamie Collins, the Pats top pick in last year’s draft. But replacing Mayo will be even tougher than filling Wilfork’s void.

As good as Wilfork is, he’s primarily a run stuffer. Mayo, on the other hand, has a plethora of defensive duties. He’s led the team in tackles in each of his first five seasons, which means he’s instrumental against the run. Against the pass he’s asked to cover running backs (he did a very good job last week against shifty New Orleans back Darren Sproles), tight ends (remember him jamming Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez in the final minutes of the Atlanta game?) and wide receivers who end up in his area when the Patriots are playing zone.

He was also the defensive player with the green dot on his helmet, which means he had radio communication with the sideline and was responsible for relaying the call to the other 10 players on the field. Given all those duties, it’s no surprise that Mayo rarely comes off the field, which makes him even harder to replace.

The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Collins has the athletic versatility to fill Mayo’s shoes, but it’s still unknown if he has the mental game to match. Fletcher has good speed and instincts, and he’s a nice story coming out of FCS Montana State, but so far he’s shown himself to be a backup-level player.

Chances are the Patriots will mix and match those Collins and Fletcher next to linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes and see what works best in various situations. Bill Belichick didn’t supply much insight into the solution during his press conference on Wednesday. The first 10 questions were about Mayo, but Belichick was his typical terse self with his answers. Here’s the transcript.

Q: Can you comment on the decision to put Jerod Mayo on Injured Reserve?

BB: It’s a medical decision.

Q: What does his loss mean to the linebacker group and the whole defense?

BB: Jerod, I think I’ve been on record many times talking about Jerod. He does a lot for us on the field, off the field. But we’re just going to have to move on.

Q: How will your other linebackers be inserted?

BB: That’s why we have them. That’s why we have a full team. if we ever happen to lose somebody, somebody else has to step in and play. That’s why we have a full team.

Q: Does it compare to Vince Wilfork in that there’s no other like that’s like him?

BB: I don’t know.

Q: What do you look for in a player that would have the communication device in their helmet?

BB: They have to be able to communicate from the sideline to the rest of the players on the field.

Q: Is it imperative for that player to always be on the field? Can you split that up if it’s a guy that comes off in certain situations?

BB: Sure, you could do that. If he comes off, then you’d have to signal or communicate it some other way. You wouldn’t be able to use the helmet communication. Yeah, sure. That happens anyway. There are always periods in the game from time to time, or in some games where the communication system doesn’t work from the coach to the quarterback or the coach to the signal caller, whatever it is, then you have to have an alternative way to communicate that. We’d have to do that even if the player out there had the green dot. There’s just times when it doesn’t work.

Q: Is there a reason it’s usually a linebacker?

BB: Could be anybody.

Q: Is there a benefit to it being a linebacker? They communicate with all levels.

BB: Sure.

Q: What about a defensive back?

BB: One guy has to get it to the other 10, however you slice it up. Whatever you feel is the most efficient way to do that for your defensive system and the players that are involved then you pick out your best option.

The media didn’t even ask about Aqib Talib, who left Sunday’s game with a hip injury and was not at practice on Wednesday. As tough as it will be to replace, Mayo, losing Talib could be an even bigger blow for a New England defense that had made drastic improvements this season. Talib led the team and was tied for the league lead with four interceptions, was tied for fifth in passes defended and he had been more than good enough to match up against some of the league’s best cathcers in recent weeks – Julio Jones, A.J. Green and Jimmy Graham.

Talib’s status is still uncertain, but the bad news is he’s had a history of hip trouble.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20)

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