NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
In April of 2010, the New England Patriots invested a second-round draft pick in run-thumping Florida product Brandon Spikes with hopes that the 6’2”, 255-pounder could develop into every-down middle linebacker in the NFL.
But with the rise in pass-heavy spread offenses and subsequent spike in defensive sub packages, the term “every-down middle linebacker” is now an almost unfeasible title for players like Spikes.
Offenses are turning to the pass and utilizing three-receiver sets at a growing rate. In turn, inside men – especially ones with five-plus 40-yard dash speed and mixed coverage success – are seeing themselves swapped out in favor of 190-pound nickelbacks with a swifter backpedal and incomparable coverage skills.
It’s part of the game’s evolution. Base defenses aren’t the base of defenses anymore; they’re phasing out of a half-and-half mix and becoming a two-for-one deal with sub personnel.
That reality situates downhill runners like the 26-year-old Spikes in a state of flux.
The varying use of No. 55 has been showcased via snap counts over his three-plus campaigns. Spikes played roughly 30 per contest as a rookie. He played 45 per contest as a second-year pro. And he played roughly 50 per contest as a third-year pro, cites Pro Football Focus.
This season, however, has been different for the veteran. Through five games, Spikes has logged just 149 snaps for an average of 30 per contest. In all actuality, though, it would be misleading to call it an “average.”
Spikes’ workload has been a week-by-week stock report. Certain matchups have been tailored to his strengths more than others, and the team’s brass is well aware of it.
In Week 1, the Patriots faced dynamic receiving threats in running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, along with wide receivers Stevie Johnson and Robert Woods. New England countered with the sub-package D. Spikes was not a part of it. He saw 6’1”, 250-pound weak-side linebacker Jerod Mayo and 6’3”, 270-pound strong-side linebacker Dont’a Hightower in a tandem, while nickel corner Kyle Arrington strapped his helmet on and ran to the seam. He played 16 of the team’s 64 plays in the win over Buffalo, registering two tackles.
Then, in a rainy Week 2 battle against the New York Jets, Spikes was a prevalent face in the center of New England’s defense, keying in on the Jets’ multiple backs as well as tight ends Jeff Cumberland and Kellen Winslow. He finished with a modest three tackles on New York’s two-tight end and sometimes two-running back looks, but he saw his on-field chances double to 31 of the squad’s 74 plays.
During New England’s Week 3 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Spikes played 37 of a possible 71 snaps. It was not exactly a full day’s work, but it was the most reps Spikes had seen to that point in September. As the Buccaneers began to lean on the pass late in the second half, New England leaned on the 4-2 nickel without Spikes. He managed seven stops – five of which were on feature tailback Doug Martin.
Things dropped back to earth when Week 4 rolled around. The Atlanta Falcons’ diverse passing game comprised of wideouts Roddy White, Julio Jones, Harry Douglas, tight end Tony Gonzalez and halfback Jacquizz Rodgers did not coincide with Spikes’ barreling style.
White, Jones, Douglas, Gonzalez and Rodgers proved to be five ingredients Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia did not want to sprinkle with Spikes. He played a grand total of six snaps in the base 4-3 – two in the run game, three shooting the gaps towards quarterback Matt Ryan, and one back in pass coverage.
He finished with one wrap-up in the process.
Just days removed from what were essentially reserve duties, the coaching staff displayed supreme trust in Spikes opposite the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 5.
In addition to playing in a three-linebacker front, he was thrust into the 4-2 nickel defense, swapping Hightower to the sidelines. The move helped reinforce the Vince Wilfork-less interior line with extra muscle, and it helped Spikes put together his best performance of the young 2013 season.
He compiled a dozen tackles, a pass deflection and a red-zone interception on Bengals QB Andy Dalton. By the end of the drizzly loss at Paul Brown Stadium, Spikes had tallied a season-high 59 snaps.
He tracked first-round tight end Tyler Eifert and forged into the backfield to disrupt rushers BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard. He was a stout figure between the hashes, throwing his body into lanes without Wilfork ahead of him.
It was a validation of responsibilities for Spikes.
But if we have learned anything from the first five games of the season, it’s that responsibilities are subject to change. Spikes’ utilization will waver throughout the year. He’s been on the field for 82 downs of run defense, 48 downs of pass coverage and 19 downs of pass rush, according to Pro Football Focus’ premium statistics. His rotation with Hightower, Mayo, prized rookie draft choice Jamie Collins and even special teamer Dane Fletcher is in a stage of tuning as well.
All the enigmatic “Mike” ‘backer can do is be ready. His snaps are contingent on the team he’s lining up against, the weapons on the other side of the ball, and the tendencies of the offensive scheme.
So although Brandon Spikes will never be a cover linebacker or an “every-down” linebacker in the NFL, he has been and will continue to be a middle linebacker with a purpose.