Jerod Mayo spicing up Patriots' D

MLB Jerod Mayo is a galvanizing force for the Patriots both on the field and in the locker room. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There are two quarterbacks on the New England Patriots roster, but not according to defensive lineman Vince Wilfork. He sees three.

There's Tom Brady, Ryan Mallett and ... Jerod Mayo?

Let Wilfork, one of the team's defensive captains, explain.

"To play that linebacker spot, it's like Tom on the other side of the ball. They're the captain and they run the ship. They're the engine. They make sure everything is on point," Wilfork relayed. "You have to respect that because he's getting everything in order for us. He calls the shots on the field."

Just as Brady has put up big numbers this season, the Patriots' defensive "quarterback" is hitting new plateaus as well.

Known to this point as a tackling machine who seldom came off the field, the 6-foot-1, 250-pound Mayo is starting to show up more as a disruptive pass-rusher and turnover machine. He has three sacks this season after totaling 4.5 in the first four years of his career. He has also forced four fumbles in 2012, matching his career total entering the year.

ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi, who used to play Mayo's position in the Patriots' scheme, has noticed a breakthrough in Mayo's play of late and he thinks he knows why.

Just as a quarterback needs time to develop in a team's system -- think the 2001 version of Brady versus the 2004 version of Brady -- so, too, does a linebacker in the Patriots' complex scheme. Now in his fifth season, Mayo has broken through to the point that new opportunities are opening for him.

Bruschi pointed to a fourth-and-5 play in the team's "Monday Night Football" victory over the Houston Texans as one shining example of this. Mayo lined up in the "A" gap (over the center) on the play, which came with the Patriots leading 21-0 in the second quarter, and knew he had running back Arian Foster in man coverage.

But Mayo saw the potential for a big play and called out to left end Rob Ninkovich to cover Foster if the running back swung out in his direction, which is exactly what happened. And when center Chris Myers blocked down on lineman Vince Wilfork, Mayo exploded through the line unblocked to pressure quarterback Matt Schaub into an incompletion.

It's the type of play that doesn't necessarily show up on the stat sheet (Mayo did get credit for a quarterback hit), but truly reflects Mayo's value as the quarterback of the defense. It's similar to how Brady changes plays at the line of scrimmage on offense.

"There is a book of tricks, a book of calls, that an inside linebacker can use in that system," Bruschi explained on the weekly ESPNBoston.com podcast. "Jerod knows all those calls and he's starting to use his arsenal of calls, and utilize other players, other pieces on his chessboard, to put them in position so he can make plays."

On offense, Brady is a master chess player. Mayo is coming into his own as well.

"It's kind of like a quarterback: The linebacker has to make multiple, multiple decisions on every play," coach Bill Belichick said. "So many different things happen in a split second during the course of the play, just like it is for a quarterback.

"I think a good quarterback or a good linebacker ... even though you have a lot of bodies moving out there, it slows down for them and they can really see it. Then there are other guys that it's a lot of guys moving and they don't see anything -- it's like being at a busy intersection, just cars going everything. The guys that can really sort it out, they see the game at a slower pace and can really sort out and decipher all the movement, which is hard."

Mayo said Friday that things are indeed slowing down for him each year, and his awareness is greater as well. He also stressed the importance of having some stability on defense, which has contributed to the unit's positive strides in recent weeks, including his own performance.

His teammates have noticed a different Mayo buzzing around the field.

"His game has always been at a high level. This year, I think he really came out and his game just sky-rocketed to a whole another level," opined Wilfork, one of Mayo's closest friends on the team. "There's not a doubt in my mind that he's one of the best linebackers in the game."

Along those lines, Sunday night's game against the San Francisco 49ers can provide a measuring stick of sorts for Mayo, because the San Francisco tandem of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman is widely viewed as the NFL's best at the position.

Since arriving as a first-round draft choice in 2008, Mayo's smarts and work ethic have been lauded by teammates who joke that he's "Bill Jr." (aka Bill Belichick's adopted son) because of how much time he spends at Gillette Stadium watching tape. Up until last month, Mayo lived five minutes from Gillette because he figured he'd be spending most of his time there anyway. He just moved a bit further away, but is still logging hours in the 6:30-to-6:30 range on a daily basis.

"He's 'one of the first to come in and last to leave' type of guy. He's a guy you want to play hard for," cornerback Kyle Arrington said. "He's the ultimate leader. You never want to let any of your teammates down -- that's why we're here -- but if there is one guy you don't want to let down, it's him."

"From the leadership standpoint, he's probably one of the best leaders I've been around -- and he's young," Wilfork added.

This is the type of respect Mayo, who has been credited with a team-high 158 tackles and has played a team-high 96 percent of the team's defensive snaps, has garnered among teammates. He doesn't take it for granted.

"I take a lot of pride in that. I just try to lead by example, to be honest with you," he said. "I try to make sure I'm on the right page, and then I have to make sure everyone else is. We always talk about seeing the play through the same set of eyes -- everyone has to see the play the same way and if not, there will be holes in the defense."

The holes have been covered up in recent weeks, and just as it starts with Brady on offense, the defense has its own quarterback in Mayo. According to Wilfork, Mayo will sometimes talk to coaches and suggest changes that are implemented. Then there are other subtleties, such as the fourth-and-5 play against the Texans, which make Mayo such an instrumental member of the defense.

"What he does, it's stuff you wouldn't think of," Wilfork said. "I see how hard he works; he works his tail off. I'm just happy to be part of that guy because he pushes me to be better."