New England Patriots: The Curious Case of Brandon Spikes
At least, that's the case if you ask Buffalo Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was on the receiving end of a particularly brutal helmet-to-helmet Spikes sack in Week 10 that got flagged for roughing the passer.
Fitzpatrick may be right, but "punk" doesn't fully encapsulate the mystery-wrapped-in-an-enigma-wrapped-in-a-255-pound-linebacker that is Spikes. The former Florida Gator is so many more things: a "headhunter", a controversial Tweeter and a self-employed adult entertainer, to name a few.
Oh, and he's also one of the game's best interior linebackers.
Spikes is the Patriots' answer to former Red Sox OF Manny Ramirez, with an extra dash of menace. In both cases, when you sign up for the elite production, you sign on for everything—including all the baggage that comes with the player.
Let's take a look at Brandon Spikes—the player and the person.
Spikes the Elite Run-Stuffer
Now in his third NFL season, Spikes is enjoying his best year yet. He's already reached career highs in tackles (81), stuffs (five) and passes defended (five), while his five forced fumbles have him tied with teammate Rob Ninkovich for third in the league.
"Enjoying" is the appropriate word to describe Spikes' attitude this year. He's grown into a defensive force in 2012, and he's loving every minute of it. Spikes said as much heading into the Pats' Week 9 bye (per ESPN.com):
Honestly, this is the best I've ever felt in my life. I feel like I'm 18. I can go play this week, or next week. I feel great, man.
What Spikes has demonstrated in 2012 is tremendous instincts and explosiveness. He diagnoses plays as quickly as anyone in the league. Even without top-end speed, he takes great angles to meet the ball-carrier and lowers his shoulder to lay brutal hits.
Let's take a look at a Week 4 play against the Buffalo Bills. The Bills, up 14-7 late in the second quarter, had just recovered a Wes Welker fumble and marched down to the Pats' 4-yard line, looking to go ahead by two scores before the half.
But on second and goal, Brandon Spikes turned the tide—and ultimately, changed the game. Let's break down the play.
The Bills start out with three WRs and TE Scott Chandler in the left slot. QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is in the shotgun, with RB C.J. Spiller to his left. It looks like a pass, with Spiller staying in to run-block, swinging into the flat or running out as a checkdown option.
The Pats feel the same way, sending out their nickel defense (five DBs) with Spikes (yellow circle) and captain Jerod Mayo as the only linebackers.
But the play call turns out to be a draw, with Spiller (red circle) taking the handoff from the left hashmark and running up the gut.
By the time Spiller gets the ball, Spikes has diagnosed the play and is anticipating which gap the RB will hit. It's a good thing Spikes decides quickly, too—Bills' LT Cordy Glenn (green circle) has left his man and moved upfield to block Spikes.
But Spikes has already begun moving to his left, away from Glenn. Spikes' quick decision-making and explosiveness take the LT out of the play.
You'll see Glenn (#77) with nothing to do in the following slide.
Spiller has picked his lane—the right A-gap (between the C and RG) and thinks he sees daylight. All five Patriots defenders in the area are engaged in blocks.
But what he's missed is Spikes, coming across the field just to the left of Spiller's vision.
Spikes lowers his head, leads with his front shoulder and pops Spiller. It's a brutal hit, one that's audible in the broadcast.
The Bills RB fumbles the ball, and Patriots DT Vince Wilfork recovers to keep the game within one score at the half. The Pats went on to outscore the Bills 45-14 in the second half, thanks in part to this momentum-shifting play by Spikes.
Spikes the Improving Pass Defender
But as good as Brandon Spikes is against the run, the NFL is a passing league now, and he has strides to make in that area.
Spikes lacks the lateral quickness to stay with slot receivers and receiving TEs, and even his great instincts can't make up for pass-catchers' ability to beat him on crossing routes.
According to ProFootballFocus (subscription-only), Spikes grades out cumulatively as just the 29th-ranked ILB in pass coverage, which frankly sounds about right.
He's given up big days to players like RB Ray Rice, who lit him up for 72 yards receiving and a hold on three targets (all target stats per Dave's Breakdown, a great blog on the Pats' D). Through the first eight games of the year, Spikes allowed 23 catches on 33 targets for 278 yards, yielding 8.42 yards-per-attempt.
But Spikes is improving, grading out positively in coverage in three of the last five weeks by ProFootballFocus evaluations. He was targeted just twice against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 11, yielding zero completions.
If the Pats manage their defensive schemes in such a way as to keep Spikes from needing to test his range in coverage too often, he can succeed as an every-down player.
That means leaving him in when they play nickel coverage and giving him middle-zone responsibility on checkdowns and as a QB spy when he's not rushing the passer. The potential of a thunderous hit by Spikes over the middle is enough to make any RB peek over his shoulder on a checkdown.
Spikes the Surprisingly Good Pass-Rusher
Spikes didn't provide much in the way of a pass rush earlier in his career. He never had a sack prior to this year, and had just seven combined QB hits and hurries in 720 career snaps. The Pats didn't use him much as a pass-rusher in his first two years in the NFL, sending him after the QB on just 54 career snaps prior to this season.
But New England coach Bill Belichick must have seen something in 2012 to turn him loose more often. Spikes has already rushed the passer 49 times this year, and he's done it with success.
Spikes grades out as the third-best pass-rushing ILB in the NFL according to ProFootballFocus. He's behind only Pittsburgh's Lawrence Timmons in QB hits (five) and is tied for third in the league in QB pressures (six).
It makes sense that Spikes has begun to blossom as a pass-rusher. His one weakness as a run-stuffer (his tendency to sell out to a gap in an attempt to stuff the ball-carrier) actually serves him well as a blitzer. Using his instincts and aggression, Spikes hits the A-gap hard right off the snap and charges past would-be blockers right into the passer's face.
Sometimes, Spikes times the blitz wrong, like in the Patriots' Week 12 matchup against the New York Jets. On the Jets' second drive of the game, Spikes charged toward the line too early in the snap count, and his motion fooled Vince Wilfork into an encroachment penalty.
Still, when Spikes times his blitz right, he can fly past the line and right into the QB's lap. As he develops his instincts as a blitzer, he'll become a real weapon for the Pats.
It has already begun, in this breakout 2012 campaign for Spikes.
Spikes the Troublesome Personality—Is He Worth the Hassle?
The issue for Spikes isn't just pass coverage—it's media coverage of his many mishaps.
Putting aside the borderline (or worse) hits that draw attention from the league—including his hit on Fitzpatrick for which the NFL levied a $25,000 fine—Spikes has drawn the wrong kind of attention for off-field actions ranging from the bizarre to the illegal.
Spikes' 2010 Chatroulette video in which he and his girlfriend performed sexual acts drew an investigation from the NFL and an apology from his agent.
In December of 2010, Spikes was suspended four games for violating the NFL's drug policy.
This year, he drew ire from fans and the media for an offensive tweet that was, at the very least, in poor taste.
Spikes is the kind of polarizing presence that could destroy an already-splintered locker room—say, that of the New York Jets. But with strong locker-room presences around him like Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork—not to mention Tom Brady—the Pats can afford to take on a player with his baggage.
In fact, the Pats have seemed to benefit from Spikes' imposing attitude in recent weeks. They've increasingly laid the wood on pass-catchers as the season has progressed. Spikes brings needed aggression to the Patriots defense. He's even talked about modeling his game after all-time tough guy, Bears LB Dick Butkus:
[Butkus was] just a guy that stuck out to me. He was always just killing guys, making plays. You know, he was in the middle of the defense and that’s one reason why I play the position. I decided to mold my game after that killer instinct, every game.
Spikes may not be the Patriots' first choice when it comes time to send player reps to book signings and PR events.
But he's definitely at the top of their list when it comes time to send tacklers at the ball-carrier.
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