NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
Lost amid the excitement surrounding what appears to be an upgraded Patriots defense which currently ranks among the league’s top ten teams in both points (sixth) and yards (eighth) is the absence of middle linebacker Brandon Spikes in New England’s defensive formations. Through two games, Spikes has been relegated to a rotational role, starting the season opener at Buffalo but appearing in just a quarter of the Patriots’ 64 defensive snaps.
Spikes saw an increased snap count against the Jets in week two, but nonetheless lined up for only 31/74 snaps (41.9%) without appearing as a member of New England’s starting defense; his usage during that contest brought his snap count to 47/138 on the season, or just over 34%. It sounds incredible, but that means the former second-round pick has seen the field less than undrafted free agent Joe Vellano, who has logged 53 snaps at defensive tackle despite being behind both Vince Wilfork (116 snaps) and Tommy Kelly (81 snaps) on the depth chart.
Read on to find out what this may mean for Spikes.
The most logical factors contributing to Spikes’ low visibility on the field thus far in 2013 are a pair of philosophical or schematic decisions made by New England’s coaching staff, namely to transition to more four-man fronts, a move which began back in 2011, and an emphasis on sub packages which feature five defensive backs (Aqib Talib at left cornerback, Steve Gregory at strong safety, Devin McCourty at free safety, Kyle Arrington in the slot, and Alfonzo Dennard at right cornerback.)
With four defensive linemen and five defensive backs, it logically follows that only two linebackers can be on the field at any given time, which, thus far, have almost always been weakside linebacker Jerod Mayo and strongside linebacker Dont’a Hightower, the two being more athletic and consequently more successful in coverage than Spikes, the most one-dimensional of the three as a player whose excellent run defense is his calling card as a pro.
Based on how rare it has been to see Spikes on the field, and based on the underlying thought processes behind that scarcity, there is a distinct possibility that New England is preparing for life without Spikes, as the 26 year-old linebacker is currently in the final season of his rookie contract and the team already has a few different contingency plans in place in the event that he signs elsewhere this coming offseason for not only a more lucrative contract but also for a more substantial role than the Patriots are willing to give him. In particular, three possibilities seem to make the most sense at this time, which will be detailed further below.
The first option would involve the most direct replacement, allowing Spikes to depart in free agency and replacing him at middle linebacker with either an internal or external option, the most likely in-house candidate being Dane Fletcher, who, surprisingly, has not taken any snaps with New England’s defense this season and who missed all of 2012 with a torn ACL but who logged 279 snaps in 2011 and performed well enough to prompt speculation that he was destined for a more substantial role in 2012 before getting hurt.
Like Spikes, Fletcher is set to become a free agent at the end of the season, but owing to his injury and reserve role over the past two seasons, he would likely be significantly cheaper than Spikes while allowing New England to continue operating out of four-man defensive lines with an extra defensive back in coverage. The primary benefit of this option would be continuity.
The second possibility, and the one which may be the most realistic, is to slide Hightower inside to middle linebacker, where his own limitations in range would be better-disguised, with rookie second-round pick Jamie Collins assuming Hightower’s role as New England’s starting strongside linebacker. Collins has played just six snaps over the first two games, but should be destined for a greatly expanded role moving forwards as he adjusts to the level of competition in the NFL. The former collegiate safety is easily the most athletic linebacker on the Patriots and projects to improve New England’s pass defense further when he takes the field, whether as a lanky, athletic coverage linebacker or as a pass rusher, having recorded twenty tackles for loss and ten sacks last season at Southern Mississippi.
It stands to reason that New England’s decision to draft Collins with their first pick in April was at least partially influenced by the possibility of Spikes leaving at the end of the season.
The third alternative option would also involve sliding Hightower to the middle, but would see Patriots left end Rob Ninkovich assuming Hightower’s strongside role in order to allow Collins more development time. The left end position would need to be filled by another player, potentially 2013 seventh-round pick Michael Buchanan, who was seemingly undervalued in the draft and who has played well with the organization thus far. Buchanan may offer a higher ceiling as a pass rusher than Ninkovich.
Depending on which players are available in free agency, and what the Patriots coaching staff hopes to see from the position, the spot could also be occupied by a player more traditionally suited to a five-technique role in a three-man front, as New England has previously attempted to sign the likes of Red Bryant and Desmond Bryant, two massive space-eaters with positional and schematic versatility.
Of course, the Patriots also rely more heavily on opponent-specific gameplans than many teams, with opposing organizations dictating New England’s approach in any given game to a large extent. It’s possible that the team’s front office is not attempting to phase out Spikes over the long term but will integrate him into the offense more extensively moving forwards, particularly against run-oriented offenses.
Although the team’s pass defense has been surprisingly efficient through two games this season, ranking fourth in passing yards allowed compared to 29th last season, it has come at the expense of the team’s traditionally effective run defense, which ranked ninth in yards allowed last season but currently stands at 28th after struggling to handle Buffalo’s two-back tandem of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson and allowing Jets running back Bilal Powell to have a successful outing last week. The next few weeks should clarify New England’s approach when it comes to Spikes.