FOXBOROUGH -- When Junior Seau walked off the field after seriously injuring his right arm during the second quarter of the Patriots' 17-13 victory over the Chicago Bears Sunday, he seemed to be saying goodbye, waving to the crowd with his left arm.
The Patriots officially said goodbye to Seau for the season yesterday, placing the veteran inside linebacker on injured reserve. Whether Seau's farewell gesture signaled the end of his 17-year career is uncertain, but his departure certainly left a large hole in the New England linebacking corps.
Except for when the Patriots opened in a nickel defense against the Cincinnati Bengals, Seau has started every game this season. He was fourth on the team with 70 tackles, and he was part of the third-ranked run defense in the league, one allowing 83.2 yards per game.
Playing beside Tedy Bruschi, the 12-time Pro Bowler, who was coaxed out of retirement and signed Aug. 18, plugged what had been a trouble spot for New England last season, when the subpar play of Monty Beisel and Chad Brown forced outside linebacker Mike Vrabel to move inside for the final 11 games of the regular season and playoffs.
"Junior was real good," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "Our system, even though he worked a little bit in it in Miami last year, is different from anything he's played in, and that was an adjustment for him. He worked very hard to kind of change his style of play a little bit to fit what we do."
According to an SI.com report, Seau, who made his name in San Diego with a swashbuckling sideline-to-sideline style, wasn't always successful. Sports Illustrated's Michael Silver writes in this week's issue that Seau and Patriots defensive line coach Pepper Johnson had to be separated a few weeks ago, when they became engaged in an altercation that extended to the parking lot. According to Silver, the source of the disagreement was Seau not following the design of a scripted defensive play.
"I'm aware of the report, but I have no information on it," said Patriots spokesman Stacey James.
Seau's absence had a domino effect on the Patriots' 3-4 defense. After Seau was injured bringing down Bears ball carrier Cedric Benson for no gain, Vrabel, normally at left outside linebacker, reprised his role inside. Rosevelt Colvin slid over to take Vrabel's spot and reserve Tully Banta-Cain replaced Colvin at right outside linebacker.
"We work it that way in practice," said Belichick, who has become a master of contingency plans. "The rotation was exactly the way we've been practicing all year since Tedy came back."
Bruschi missed the season opener against Buffalo with a broken scaphoid bone in his right wrist. Vrabel started that game inside, alongside Seau, making 11 tackles. While playing inside last year, Vrabel led the team with a career-high 114 tackles. It was Seau's signing that allowed him to move back outside.
Now, Seau's injury may open the door for one or more of the little-used reserve linebackers -- veteran special teamers Don Davis and Larry Izzo, both inside backers, third-year linebacker Eric Alexander (inside), and first-year undrafted free agents Corey Mays (inside) and Pierre Woods (outside) -- to see more playing time.
Izzo has carved out a career almost exclusively on special teams. Davis, an 11-year veteran, has been MIA on defense since his momentum-turning fourth-down stop against Buffalo in the season opener. Despite having played under Nick Saban at LSU, Alexander played in just four games in his first two years in New England. He has played in all 11 contests this season, registering nine tackles.
Mays, who played for Charlie Weis at Notre Dame, and Woods, a Michigan product, have played in a combined seven games; neither has been credited with a defensive stop. Mays, who was signed off the practice squad before the Indianapolis game, has four special teams tackles in four games. Woods, who has played in three games, has three special teams tackles.
"I think those guys are getting better. They're young players," said Belichick. "They're a lot better now than they were 10, 11, 12 weeks ago, no doubt about that. We'll have to see how all of that works. Maybe some roles will shift around a little bit. A lot of that is on a week-to-week game-plan basis, but when you lose a player, that might shift a role, or maybe multiple roles."
Always careful not to tip his hand, Belichick demurred when asked if his dearth of experienced linebackers would force the team to play more 4-3. He said it will be a week-to-week decision, as always. Whoever ends up soaking up Seau's playing time will be expected to tackle the role with Patriotlike precision.
"The guys that we put in there we expect to play well," said Belichick. "The guys that are in there, I'm sure they expect themselves to play well."