NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
On a 1st-and-10 with 5:03 remaining in Week 17, Brandon Spikes’ season came to an end.
It transpired as Buffalo Bills halfback C.J. Spiller pierced through the sodden Gillette Stadium hashes and crossed outward to the flat, where he created separation beyond the New England Patriots linebacker.
Buffalo quarterback Thaddeus Lewis found his target in stride. And from there, the ball-carrier veered past the 50-yard line, shedding the arcing arms of nickelback Kyle Arrington as Spikes closed in.
Yet at the New England 48, Spiller redirected.
Spikes did not, nor could he.
The legs of the the 2010 second-round draft pick caved underneath him. His 6’2”, 255-pound frame gave out as he observed his would-be tackle shoot up sideline for 16 yards.
That was it.
It was an unceremonious final blow for a man who’d already gone 12 rounds this year. Having battled through ligament damage in his braced left knee for two months, according The Boston Globe’s Shalise Manza Young, Spikes knew he was facing surgery this offseason.
Although for him, the offseason unofficially arrived on the eve of Dec. 30.
The 26-year-old idled off the field under the eyes of team doctor Thomas Gill and the training staff. And in doing so under his own power, there was a sense that he would be okay. There was a sense that that this ailment was no graver than the last, that he would battle back by Jan. 11 for the divisional round.
Though, after seven days of silence, the news broke Monday afternoon.
New England’s injury-depleted defense – as well as the Jerod Mayo-less linebacking corps – had taken another loss. The league’s best run-stopping inside linebacker – per Pro Football Focus – had been placed on injured reserve.
Spikes’ departure from the regular-season finale marked the end of his fourth NFL campaign. Set to become an unrestricted free agent come March 11, it may have also marked the end of his tenure as a Patriot.
But in the immediate future, all Spikes can do is watch his teammates play the Indianapolis Colts from the sidelines this weekend. On the field, all the Patriots defense can do is forge a way without him.
It was something the unit had to do for the final nine snaps versus Buffalo.
Trailing by seven and then 14 points late in the fourth, the Bills fought New England primarily via air. It was a small and perhaps misleading sample size. It was, however, a sample size that the Patriots defense won out, deprived of Spikes’ 59 run-stifling tackles and deceptively strong 13.8 coverage snaps per reception – courtesy of PFF.
The defense managed to do so with one formation: the 4-2 nickel.
Whether it was due to the passing situation or the thinning at linebacker, the Patriots responded four linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs for the duration of the tilt.
With seventh-rounder Steve Beauharnais inactive and Chris White manning special teams, responsibilities rested on weak-side starter Dont’a Hightower, second-round pick Jamie Collins on the strong side, and rotational man Dane Fletcher spelling both.
All three worked with one another, even if only two were on the field at once.
Hightower and Collins
The main tandem of Hightower and Collins was together for six of the nine concluding defensive snaps. For four of those snaps, Hightower monitored the running back or flat, while Collins monitored the tight end or underneath zone.
As for the other two occasions, the combo shared the underneath and also switched “11” personnel assignments for snap.
This pairing combined for one tackle and allowed two catches to their respective matchups. Meanwhile, as a whole, the defense conceded an average of 3.5 yards per play.
It projects as the first-tier duo moving forward, as it implements Hightower’s 6’3” and 270-pound bulk to hold the run, and Collins’ explosive athleticism to keep pace downfield or rush the passer.
Hightower and Fletcher
For two plays following Spikes’ exit, head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia sent out Fletcher to replace Collins next to Hightower. Both played zone, but the vicinity of the Bills running back and tight end decided who would go where.
When the Bills aligned the core personnel to left side of the ball, Hightower set his reference point on the back and Fletcher set his on the tight end.
When the Bills set up the core personnel on the right side of the ball, it was vice versa. This assortment tallied one tackle, as Hightower pursued the tailback check-down after the catch was made.
Collectively, the defense gave up one completion for three yards on two attempts. And Fletcher was able to give Collins a breather as he and Hightower swapped tasks.
Fletcher and Collins
For one play down in the red zone, Fletcher stepped in for Hightower to hover the left side of the defensive line, all while Collins circled the interior. In which, Fletcher chased the back out to the numbers and Collins shielded the tight end passing between the numbers.
The play ultimately gave way to a sack on third down – a circumstance in which the mobility of Fletcher and Collins has become integral.
For what it’s worth, the final nine Bills play-calls netted a total 25 yards. New England’s defense allowed 25 yards on 3-of-6 passing, four yards on two rushing attempts and minus-four yards on a sack.
Fletcher’s utilization as a spot-starter and a linebacker capable of playing both sides will be invaluable with the understaffed roster that has since promoted undrafted linebacker Ja’Gared Davis to fill Spikes’ place. Because when the Patriots do in fact assemble in a 4-3 base defense, the 6’2”, 245 Fletcher figures to be in the middle of it.
The growth of Hightower – both as a decisive run defender and pass defender with depth awareness – will be key as well. He may be playing out of position on the weak end. Yet at this point, most Patriots players are.
Collins is the wild card in the trio. He’s adapted to an increased role over his last six games, and he’s also grown more comfortable dropping back into space. He will need to keep that trend going, because when the quarterback Andrew Luck and the Colts come to Foxborough, a different brand of football will be played.
This brand will leave the Patriots defense playing a full game without Spikes for the first time since Week 16 of 2012.
Now even if he logged just 59 percent of snaps this year, and even if his performance was ailing along with his left knee, No. 55 was still serving a purpose in New England’s front.
The run game had to bypass him, his dark visor and his fine-drawing red cleats. And even if he wasn’t the same player – that same block-firing downhill runner – he was a still player who brought an edge.
That edge is something the Patriots defense will strive to recapture Saturday night.