At the heart of a great Bill Belichick defense has always been the linebackers. He coached formidable units as the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants (Lawrence Taylor, Pepper Johnson and Carl Banks), as head coach of the New York Jets (Johnson, Mo Lewis and Bryan Cox) and the dynasty New England Patriots (Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest).
Based on first impressions, Belichick has done it again. Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower have been great together upon assembly. With the trio leading the way, the defense is ranked seventh or higher in all three yards-allowed categories and fourth in points allowed after two games.
With the defense under a lot of scrutiny to improve dramatically from last year, it has responded thanks to the combined contributions of the SEC trio. And with them being so young (Mayo is 26, Spikes 25 and Hightower 22), they could be together for a long time.
Collegiate rivalries haven't kept them from developing chemistry. They’re off to a great start already.
While New England has been near the top of forced turnovers over the past two seasons, the Patriots didn’t always create turnovers at critical moments. To start the 2012 season, Spikes and Hightower have been involved in two potential game-changing fumbles.
Against Tennessee, Hightower returned a Chandler Jones strip sack six yards for a touchdown, sparking the route of the Titans. And with New England behind by two with less than two minutes to play against Arizona, Spikes put his hat on the ball, forcing a fumble by running back Ryan Williams that was recovered by defensive tackle Vince Wilfork at the 30-yard line.
Mayo hasn’t been involved in a turnover yet, but he was close when he made a sandwich out of Titans wide receiver Nate Washington with the help of safety Tavon Wilson. Mayo is building a reputation as a game-changer, though, with a game-securing interception against Washington last year on his resume.
Belichick has very high standards when it comes to linebackers. He preferred experienced veterans with high football IQs (with versatility a bonus). It’s why Belichick brought Vrabel, Cox, Roman Phifer, Rosevelt Colvin and Junior Seau to Gillette Stadium during his 13 years as Patriots head coach.
It took Belichick nine years with New England to draft a linebacker in the first round when he selected Mayo with the 10th pick overall in the 2008 draft.
The selection paid off, as Mayo led the team in tackles in his rookie season and was voted the Associated Press NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. By his second season, Mayo was voted a team captain and has retained the designation ever since.
Spikes fell to New England in the second round of the 2010 draft. Despite his career at Florida, he lacked ideal speed for the position. But intangibles can’t be measured with a stopwatch.
Spikes’ instincts consistently get him in the right place at the right time. Spikes’ preternatural anticipation makes up for the lack of foot speed. Thinking fast more than compensates for not being fast for Spikes.
With the bar set high by Mayo and Spikes, Hightower has to prove he belongs on the field with them. The former Alabama ‘backer is off to a good start. The signs first appeared during training camp as he was promoted to the starting unit quickly.
If there were any questions about his development, the doubts were put to rest when Hightower called the defensive plays in the second preseason game while Mayo was held out of the game. It says a lot that Belichick trusted Hightower enough to give the rookie such responsibility so early.
Their potential as a unit is high, but their success comes down to health. Mayo missed only five games in four years. But Spikes has missed 12 games in two seasons, and Hightower tore his left ACL in 2009.
Mayo, Spikes and Hightower are following the footsteps created by those who came before them. In the case of Spikes and Hightower, they wear the numbers previously worn by McGinest (No. 55) and Bruschi. Spikes and Hightower understand the significance of those numbers and realize they have a lot to live up to.
Together Mayo, Spikes and Hightower have big shoes to fill in New England. In time, they might prove the shoes fit.
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