It's undeniable the Patriots defense has absorbed some big personnel blows this season.
Starting nose tackle Vince Wilfork's season ended October 3; starting middle linebacker Jerod Mayo went on injured reserve October 16; starting D-tackle Tommy Kelly joined Wilfork and Mayo on the sidelines November 2. Other key players, like safety Aqib Talib, have avoided IR but missed games.
But if there was ever a time backup players were granted a learning curve, that time has passed.
Said defensive coordinator Matt Patricia: "I'd say at this point of the season, obviously it's not Week 1 anymore, we'd like everybody that's on the defense, everyone that's in the room and goes to the game plan meetings -- it doesn't matter if it's your first year or your tenth year -- we expect everyone to operate at a very professional level and be ready to go. And at any particular time -- knowing the league and knowing how things are every year -- at any particular time you have to go out there and play and perform. Whether you're out there on the first snap or the seventh, or the last, it doesn't matter; you have to go out there and execute at a high level.
"That's kind of the way we attack it and we approach it. Everybody is expected understand and know the information and be ready to play. At this point in the season we're far enough along that everyone who's active and ready to go in a game we expect to understand what we're doing."
New England's defense took another hit in Sunday's win over Baltimore when safety Devin McCourty left the game with a head injury. Things really got interesting when fellow safety Steve Gregory and linebacker Dont'a Hightower got checked out by the medial staff and trainers at different points.
Hightower and Gregory have been the ones to wear the radio receiver in Mayo's absence. Seeing those players come out of the game in pain, however briefly and separately, made one wonder how the calls come in if both the primary and secondary "green dot" guys go down.
"It's actually something we addressed earlier in the week. We have multiple levels of communication alertness and awareness that we practice. So there's a lot of guys out on the field, really all of them, that have the signals or have communication responsibilities, and we practiced it throughout the week.
"So there really is a smooth transition no matter who it is that has to go out there and be the signal caller. We meet with those guys throughout the week and go through the game plan and everything we're doing and the communication. I'd say over the last couple weeks it's something we've really tried to put a good emphasis point on."
Of course there's a Plan B and Plan C. This Patriots defense has probably developed Plans D and E, as well.