The expectations for Bill Belichick's linebackers go beyond speed and strength. It's also about the players feel for the game of football, as well as his ability to grasp the very difficult defensive scheme that the New England Patriots run.
In all those respects, the development of Brandon Spikes is intriguing. His ability to find the balance between the aforementioned aspects of his game could help him make improvements across the board in 2011.
Spikes only played 349 out of a possible 1,101 defensive snaps in 2010 for a 31.7 percent ratio according to ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss. Although the numbers could be skewed by his four-game suspension, he clearly became a staple against running teams, as evidenced by Pats Propaganda's Mike Dussault in his snap graph for Spikes, detailing much higher totals against run-heavy teams than pass-happy ones.
His impact on the running game is clear, and in that sense, he has already sewed up the spot next to Jerod Mayo on running downs. The question remains of whether Spikes will ever be a "true" three-down linebacker in the 3-4 defense. The main reason why that question exists is due to his lack of speed.
With a 5.05-second 40 time at the combine, he won't be covering tight ends or running backs man-to-man anytime soon.
Of course, speed isn't everything.
He could make up for his shortcomings in the passing game with hard work in the offseason, and of course, that top-notch motor. Obviously, he was able to overcome those shortcomings with his instincts at times in 2010. A deeper understanding of the defensive scheme could go a long way in helping him find a permanent role in the passing game.
Spikes' feel for the game is evident in the way he plays. Bill Belichick acknowledged Spikes' great football instincts as early as last August, and Phil Simms followed suit in the first game of the season against the Bengals, when Spikes nearly made a play on a throw over the middle from Carson Palmer to Terrell Owens (0:16 mark in the highlight video seen here).
"[Spikes] is really good at coming up and fighting linemen and stopping the run," said Simms, "but what helps him survive in the passing game is that he knows football, and is very instinctive. Those instincts get him in position to make plays."
His instincts kicked in once again, against the New York Jets on Monday Night Football in Week 13. On 2nd-and-8 in the red zone, Spikes stayed true to his assignment, a short zone drop, despite a play action fake that might have had most middle linebackers jumping at the opportunity to make the play (3:12 mark in the video).
"Look at Spikes," said commentator and former NFL head coach Jon Gruden. "He's not going to bite on the play action pass, and as Holmes runs right down the middle, that's just easy pickin's for the Patriots defense."
Who has the best chance of developing into an every-down linebacker in the Patriots defense?
In that game, Spikes was credited with seven tackles in only 23 plays. Including the interception, he played a part in over one-third of the defensive plays in which he was on the field.
Spikes does two things very well: read and react. Coincidentally (or not), those are two things the Patriots ask their defenders to do, by description. Thus, he's a natural fit in the Patriots read-and-react defense.
We have seen him play effectively in zone coverage on occasion, as I have outlined on both the Sanchez interception and the deflection of the Palmer pass.
Beyond that, he could use his aggressive style of play to make an impact as a blitzer. He comes down hill hard at the line of scrimmage, taking on massive guards and beating them consistently. The highlight reel above shows Spikes tossing men aside who are 50-plus pounds heavier than he is.
If he can combine that aggressive style of play with his sharp instincts, he could find a niche in bowling over offensive linemen and shooting the gaps just as they open up to hurry the passer.
As an interior blitzer and in zone coverage, he could make an impact on passing downs.
It won't be a cake walk, though. He'll have to work hard to ensure that his development in the passing game continues. Spikes has solidified his spot in run defense, but we all know the requisite versatility that comes with being a three-down linebacker in Belichick's 3-4.
As far as the hard work in the offseason goes, although I won't speculate to the reason, it's fair to point out that Spikes was absent from the team's voluntary three-day workout at Boston College according to NESN.com's Jeff Howe.
There were also a couple of character concerns that crept up last season. The previously-mentioned four-game suspension was a result of Spikes failing to alert the league that he was prescribed Adderall. Prior to that, a sex tape scandal made its way into the media just a couple of weeks before the regular season began.
In retrospect, those could be but small bumps in the road. Spikes seems like a player the team can genuinely rally around, a guy who brings a great deal of energy to every play. Just look at him celebrate after the goal-line stand against the Vikings, or after the interception against the Jets.
He's one of those players whose contributions to the defense goes beyond his stats. He brings an attitude to the front seven that is necessary for the continued success of the Patriots defense.
You can't teach that intensity. Likewise, you can't teach those keen instincts, either.
And with a greater understanding of the complex scheme they run, and a greater feel for the speed of the NFL game, the stars could line up for Spikes' production to really spike.
Now, if only the players and coaches could finally get in contact, Belichick could really give Spikes the hands-on treatment in this key stage of his development.