FOXBOROUGH - The rash of injuries that has ravaged the Patriots this season has spread to the linebacking corps, as the team lost yet another key player, outside linebacker Adalius Thomas, for the foreseeable future.
According to an NFL source, Thomas suffered a broken forearm during Sunday's 20-10 victory over the Buffalo Bills and will have surgery tomorrow. Thomas will not play Thursday night against the New York Jets and is likely done for the season, according to the source.
If so, he would join quarterback Tom Brady (left knee), safety Rodney Harrison (right quadriceps), and running back Laurence Maroney (shoulder) as Patriots starters who have been lost for the season.
"It's extremely tough," said cornerback Ellis Hobbs. "Any time you lose a player, especially an impact player like [Thomas], it hurts. But he'll tell you himself, the machine can't stop. It has to keep on rolling and continue to roll."
Thomas, who was tied with Richard Seymour for the team lead in sacks with five and was credited with 34 tackles, will not be an easy player for the Patriots to replace. He was a valuable and versatile part of the defense and rarely came off the field.
The 6-foot-2-inch, 270-pound Thomas played outside linebacker in the team's base 3-4 defense, but lined up at inside linebacker in the various nickel and dime packages and also was used as a down lineman at times in those packages.
"I think it will be difficult," said Mike Vrabel, who lined up opposite Thomas at outside linebacker. "He's a guy that certainly, like a lot of guys here, plays a lot of different positions and plays them pretty well, so it will be tough. He was a leader. He was a veteran guy that played well, and we'll just have to find guys to step up."
First up is likely to be third-year outside linebacker Pierre Woods, who could make his first career start Thursday. When Thomas left during the second quarter Sunday, he was replaced by Woods. Woods, who had two tackles, said he just came in and tried to do his job, a familiar refrain in the Patriots locker room. That's his plan moving forward as a replacement.
"You're supposed to do your job," he said. "That's what you're here for. That's what you get paid for, so you definitely go in and just know what you're doing. It's just like the preseason. I was out there and playing when Mike was out and [Thomas] was out. You just try to pick up where they left off at."
Other options for the Patriots would be to play more of a 4-3 defense by replacing Thomas with defensive end Jarvis Green or to use undrafted rookie Gary Guyton, who can play both inside and outside linebacker, more outside. Guyton, who has been a big part of the team's sub packages, would seem a likely candidate to inherit some of Thomas's responsibilities in nickel and dime looks, since he already is a part of those packages.
Losing Thomas tests the Patriots' outside linebacker depth. The team already placed rookie Shawn Crable on injured reserve with a shin injury, so he's not available. Rookie Vince Redd is on the practice squad and could be promoted if Thomas is put on IR or if the team clears a roster spot.
The 6-foot-6-inch, 260-pound Redd would be more prepared than most rookies. He played in a 3-4 system similar to the one the Patriots run at the University of Virginia under Al Groh, who was the Patriots defensive coordinator under Bill Parcells and coached with Patriots coach Bill Belichick with the Giants, Browns, and Jets. He was with Virginia for two years before transferring to Liberty University, where he played for one of Groh's former assistants at Virginia who ran the same system.
Redd said the Patriots' system and Groh's aren't exactly the same, but they're not very different.
"Sometimes if you come in and have to learn a totally different system and operation and communication and stuff like that you can get overwhelmed real easy on simple stuff, mess up on simple things," said Redd. "I guess that's where I would get an advantage over some other person that would come in."
Regardless of how the Patriots fill Thomas's spot, they have to press on and prepare for Thursday night's border battle with the Jets at Gillette Stadium, which will break a first-place tie in the AFC East between the 6-3 rivals. There's no time to lament the loss of personnel.
"It's part of the game," said Green. "We lose a great guy. Look at [Matt] Cassel, the way he's performing and he's getting better each week after losing Tom Brady. It's the same thing on defense - lose a guy, we've got to put another guy in place and he has to get prepared and be ready."
But you have to wonder at what point the injuries to key players will begin to cripple the Patriots. Is there a breaking point for a team that keeps losing parts but keeps winning games?
"No, we've been through this before - '03 and '04 were the same thing, getting guys in and just filling a role," said Green. "That's part of the game. It happens, and we have to make the best of what we have in this locker room."