The Jets lost their defensive quarterback to a "severe" shin injury and Jim Leonhard's secondary mates will have to step up after a potentially devastating blow.
"He is like a brother, he is a close teammate," said fellow safety James Ihedigbo. "When you're with someone who knows so much and he is so knowledgeable of the game — there is definitely an emotional aspect to it.
"But then again, the sad truth is that it's part of the game. There is a 100 percent injury rate in the game we play. We know that getting involved in it, and we have to step up and win this game for him and for each other."
Coordinator Mike Pettine agreed at his weekly news conference that this was a crusher but something the Jets plan to rebound from.
"I just think we were all crushed, because I think we knew pretty quickly that he was injured, and then he was down," Pettine said. "He's such a tough guy. Normally he bounces right back up from stuff. So I think everybody was just a little stunned, we wanted to get immediate help to him, and then you know, again, it's just it was really stunning. As Rex says, we all feel sorry for Jimmy, but again, we can't feel sorry for ourselves."
Leonhard, who has started all 30 games (27 regular-season and 3 postseason) the Jets have played since he followed Rex Ryan to New York in 2009, is an extra coach out there on the field. But without him in the base look, the Green & White will reinsert Brodney Pool into the starting lineup alongside Eric Smith. Smitty played well against the Bengals on Thanksgiving and was credited with eight tackles.
"I think we had really equal roles when we were in there so I don't think it's going to be as big a step," said Smith this afternoon. "Losing a guy like Jim, who knew everything and handled his side of the field well, it's going to put more pressure on me to handle the whole field and get everybody on the same page, everybody lined up, and I'm just going to have to increase my communication.
"The guy is very smart and gets us in all the checks and everything we need to get into," CB Darrelle Revis said of Smith earlier this week. "He's a clone of Jim Leonhard."
During this afternoon's practice, Leonhard attempted to break up a pass intended for WR Patrick Turner and a collision followed.
"I just had a vertical route and we collided," Turner said. "The ball was in the air and we were going for the ball."
"It was one of those collisions where you said, 'Oh, OK, he'll pop back up. He's a tough kid," Ihedigbo said. "Then the trainers ran over to him and we continued on with practice figuring he would be OK, that he would be just banged up."
But the Jets, a club that had a clean bill of health the majority of the season, took a hit today. The 5'8", 188-pound Leonhard currently ranks third on the team with 66 stops and he picked up his first interception of the year in the Jets' Week 12 victory over the Bengals.
"Rex said from the beginning of the year that games in December, January and February are won with the bottom end of your roster," Ihedigbo said. "It just happens that way and we're very prepared, we're very knowledgeable of the defense and the checks and everything we have to do. DT [DBs coach Dennis Thurman] and Rex, [Mike] Pettine and the rest of our defensive coaches will get us prepared to play and we're ready to handle business."
The good news is Dwight Lowery, who sat out the past two contests with a concussion, is expected to return to the lineup as New York's AFC representative needs all hands on deck to counter the Pats' lethal passing attack.
And in Week 2, both Pool and CB Antonio Cromartie intercepted Tom Brady in the second half as the Jets rallied after losing Revis to a hamstring injury in Quarter 2.
"He's the commander-in-chief back there," Ihedigbo said of Leonhard. "He gets guys lined up. He's kind of looked at as the quarterback of the defense. Not having him this game will be key, but we have to tighten up in the back end, tighten up as a defense and tighten up as a defense to dominate this game."
Smith and Pool have combined for 73 tackles and seven passes defended this season. The Patriots love to operate out of the two-tight-end set with rookies Aaron Hernandez (36-462-3 TDs) and Rob Gronkowski (25-310-6), and Brady has also found a receiving threat out of the backfield in Danny Woodhead (24-230-1).
While Leonhard's injury is a blow, the Jets are confident that their group will rally.
"It's something we can't control, we can't worry about it," Smith said. "We feel bad for Jim and we never want to see anyone get hurt, but we just have to keep going. The guys that have to step in have to perform more."
Nick Gallo contributed to this report.