By: Steve Balestrieri
And the hits keep right on coming for the Patriots defense… on Monday it was announced that linebacker Brandon Spikes was placed on IR for a knee injury that has plagued him all season ending his season.
Spikes’ knee has been a subject of conversation for quite some time and has regularly shown up on the injury report. He may have (as Ron Borges pointed out) already had been put on IR except for the deluge of injuries to the center of the New England defense with Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Jerod Mayo lost earlier in the season.
Two things are certain. The first is Spikes gave it all he had and his knee finally hit the point of no return last Sunday in the season finale in Buffalo. He went down moving to the sideline trying to make a tackle and collapsed in pain and finally had to be helped off the field. As the weeks have gone on, frequently we saw Spikes limp back into the huddle in obvious pain.
The second is that the loss of Spikes is another blow to the New England run defense and it is a big one. With the aforementioned players already gone, the Patriots run defense has suffered, falling to a dismal 30th in the league defending the run in 2013. Spikes helped alleviate this by playing an instinctive downhill, physical style that helped out the young players in the middle.
But his play has suffered lately as he’s lacked some of the burst and power that we’ve become accustomed to seeing from him, particularly in his run blitzes. But one thing hasn’t changed and that was Spikes efficiency in tackling. Pro Football Focus (PFF) has Spikes as the most efficient tackling linebacker in the NFL and that will be missed.
Now the question is, “how do the Patriots replace him?” and the answers are with no one player. The obvious option is to give the majority of snaps now to Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Dane Fletcher. Fletcher plays mainly in sub-package roles as a pass defender but he’s not the stoutest of run defenders. Spikes would normally come out during passing downs as his lack of speed hurt him although his instinctive style of play helped him on many occasions.
Steve Beauharnais, the rookie linebacker out of Rutgers may see some increase in snaps but he’s seen the field very little on the defensive side in 2013. One other option, and one that we’ll probably see at times on Saturday will be to rotate DE Rob Ninkovich back to linebacker, a position he’s played in the past and give some of his snaps to veteran Andre Carter and rookie Michael Buchanan.
The least attractive option is to go back to a 3-4 base defense where both Chandler Jones and Ninkovich are playing OLBs and the defensive line consisting of NT Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones and Joe Vellano. That would give them the options of either Hightower and Collins or Hightower and Fletcher at ILB. But when they went to that earlier in the season, the run defense was gashed and Jones looked uncomfortable in the role.
As for the immediate future, the Patriots now have an open roster spot. There are two LBs on the practice squad, Ja’Gared Davis and Taylor Reed a 5’11, 236 lb rookie from SMU. Or they could promote an extra DL Marcus Forston, which would likely indicate that Ninkovich would see more snaps at linebacker.
Long term, one has to wonder if Spikes has played his last down for the Patriots. He’s a free agent in 2014 and wants to get paid like a top linebacker. It is unclear right now if his injury will hurt his chances.
Regardless, the loss of Spikes is a significant one at this time of year with the first playoff game just days away and the Patriots depth which has already been tested this year will be put to the test again.
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