This is part six of an eight part series.
It’s been said that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick really loves the linebacker position. It’s been a while, but Belichick finally has a trio he could love as much as he loved Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest.
Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower are a young, physical group that had a very good first year together, but have room for improvement. They are the backbone of the defense put in position to be the primary playmakers.
Mayo and Spikes had great seasons. Mayo led the team in tackles and was selected to his second Pro Bowl. Spikes was second on the team in tackles and tied with Mayo for second on the team with four forced fumbles.
Hightower handled himself well in his rookie season, showing good versatility with 60 tackles, two fumble recoveries (one touchdown), three passes defended and four sacks.
New England’s defense is in need of an attitude change and much of that depends on the leadership of the linebackers. Changing the perception of the defense is almost as important as key defensive statistics.
It needs to go from porous to punishing and become a physical, intimidating unit that opponents dread playing—the kind of defense that makes skill-position players worry about where the big hit is coming from.
The kind of defense that makes receivers go down instead of run after the catch. A defense that makes running backs skip out of bounds because the cost for the extra yard hurts too much.
Spikes is arguably the Patriots’ tone-setter. With a dark visor and braids growing out the bottom of his helmet, Spikes is more “Predator” than football player as he hunts down ball-carriers.
He’s developed great timing as a run blitzer. It’s a scary sight when Spikes explodes through the hole untouched to truck running backs for a loss. Once he puts that target on a player, Spikes will hit him with the intention of going through him.
Along with being a big hitter, Spikes is earning fines as well as a reputation for being a dirty player. So be it. If that means a little bit of fear, then it’s a psychological edge Spikes will embrace.
Quarterbacks aren’t safe from Mayo, Spikes and Hightower either. The three combined for eight sacks, as Mayo emerged as an effective blitzer and Hightower is living up to his reputation as a pass-rusher.
The only players that don’t worry about New England’s linebackers are opposing tight ends. They often had field days when matched up against the Patriots defense. Some of the more notable performances:
Baltimore’s Dennis Pitta—10 receptions for 105 yards and two touchdowns in two games.
Buffalo’s Scott Chandler—9 receptions, 127 yards and three touchdowns in two games.
New York Jets' Dustin Keller—12 receptions, 157 yards, two touchdowns in two games.
Spikes and Hightower are great downhill defenders, but they lack the speed and quickness for man-to-man coverage. Mayo’s coverage was spotty last year.
Maybe the linebacking corps missed Dane Fletcher. The converted defensive end from Montana State had successfully made the transition to inside linebacker with the Patriots. His value to the team was unknown when he was lost for the season to an ACL tear in the preseason.
But Bobby Carpenter couldn’t fulfill the coverage-linebacker role. He was released after four games.
Fletcher spent the season on injured reserve and has already re-signed with the Patriots. If Fletcher makes a full recovery, maybe he can help contain those tight ends that keep running wild.
And thump unsuspecting ball-carriers when he has the chance. If the linebackers are trying to change the culture, everyone must buy in, Fletcher included.
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