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On defense, school's in

Posted by Tom Wilcox October 9, 2008 05:56 AM

If anyone can appreciate the transition Jerod Mayo is making, it’s Andre Tippett. ¶ Although it has been 26 years since he was a rookie, the Hall of Fame linebacker remembers what it was like to be thrust into the world of the NFL.

“My head was spinning during my rookie year,” said Tippett. “We had five or six young linebackers who made the team that year, and we were all looking to contribute early. That’s the attitude you had to take back then, and that’s the attitude you have to take now.

“Mayo is a rookie and for him to be out there as a starter says a lot about his talent and dedication. A lot of rookies come in and get lost, and here’s a kid that worked hard all spring to get ready. A lot of guys don’t have that early dedication. You have to admire the kid. He’s worked hard, but there’s still a lot to learn.”

The 6-foot-1-inch, 242-pound Mayo was the 10th overall pick out of Tennessee and the first linebacker Patriots coach Bill Belichick drafted higher than the fifth round since taking over in 2000. He was on the field for every defensive snap in the first two games of the season, and in four games so far, he leads the team with 23 solo tackles.

“I feel a little more comfortable, but I feel like at the same time I have a lot to learn,” said Mayo last month, the only time the team has allowed the 22-year-old to talk to the media this season. “I have a lot more to give to the team. It just takes time. It takes games. It takes plays. I want to learn as much as I can.”

Aiding Mayo’s development are fellow inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi and outside linebackers Mike Vrabel and Adalius Thomas. Bruschi called Sunday’s win over San Francisco a “true linebacker victory.” The Patriots pressured the 49ers using a speedy dime package (six defensive backs), four linebackers and just one defensive lineman. New England even got contributions from rookie linebacker Gary Guyton in the new package.

“Tedy Bruschi continues to be a smart, veteran leader,” said Tippett. “Vrabel puts pressure on the quarterback and has been a joy to watch since Day 1. And there’s not much Adalius Thomas can’t do. He wears a lot of different hats.”

If anyone can speak on the Patriots’ linebacker corps, it’s Tippett. The greatest defensive player in team history was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August.

“It didn’t take long for me to realize what it meant to be a Hall of Famer. I knew as soon as I got the word the day before the Super Bowl,” said Tippett. Words can’t explain how exciting this whole thing has been.”

A host of running mates
With Laurence Maroney unable to establish himself as the team’s No. 1, the Patriots have had success with a running-back-by-committee approach. Behind Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk, the Pats ran for 144 yards against the 49ers with just 3.3 yards per carry, but the consistent attack enabled them to dominate time of possession, 39:52-20:08.

“I thought [the running game] was better against San Francisco,” said Belichick. “We converted some short-yardage situations … I thought Sammy and LaMont [Jordan] ran hard but we missed a couple. It was good on the road to be able to convert some of those short-yardage situations and keep drives going.”

Faulk scored two rushing touchdowns for the first time in his career. Last season, he scored one TD. “If you would have told me that Kevin Faulk’s role would be to score two touchdowns inside the 5-yard line, I don’t think anyone would have envisioned that happening,’’ said Belichick.

Said Morris, who ran for 63 yards on 16 carries, “To use that type of backfield effectively, you have to have the right kind of guys to do it, in the sense of, not [being] selfish, putting the team first, and we’re not focused on stats and that stuff. I think we have that here.”

Jordan (five carries, 16 yards) hurt his right leg with 9:38 left in the first half, but Belichick sounded optimistic about his status, calling him a “pretty quick healer.”

Extra points
With a 2-yard reception in the first quarter, Kevin Faulk passed Terry Glenn for fifth place on the Patriots’ all-time receptions list. He is the franchise’s all-time leader in receptions by a running back…New England is the only NFL team to start each of the last three seasons with a record of 3-1 or better.

Tom Wilcox covers the Patriots for OT and can be reached at twilcox@globe.com

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Charles P. Pierce writes for the Boston Globe Magazine. A long-time sportswriter and columnist, Pierce is a frequent guest on national TV and radio.
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