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Young Patriots Linebackers Capitalizing on Expanded Roles

January 13th, 2014 at 6:36 PM
By Ryan Thomas Guidi

The New England Patriots placed veteran linebacker Brandon Spikes on injured reserve last Monday, ending his postseason, and the move originally appeared to be a cut-and-dry roster move with a player that had been battling a knee injury for a number of weeks.  As it turns out, an ESPN report in the hours leading up to Saturday's contest indicated that Spikes was unable to get to practice on time during the team's bye week as a result of the large snowstorm that had much of New England in a transportation frenzy.  It appears as though this was not an isolated incident and that Spikes and head coach Bill Belichick mutually agreed to the IR designation as opposed to a simple release, which could have opened the door for another team signing him for the final three rounds of the playoffs.  The revelation that the end to Spikes' season was potentially a disciplinarian move by Bill Belichick has major implications for his future with the club.  Spikes was set to become a free agent after this season, and knowing how the Patriots approach the negotiating table in the offseason, extending either multiple years or guaranteed dollars to a player who has been benched for a lack of professionalism–during the most important stretch of the season mind you- is almost unimaginable.  

'Tom Brady Directs The Offense' photo (c) 2012, Jack Newton - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

If Spikes' four year tenure with the team is over, it means the Patriots will be looking to replace his downhill, hard-hitting style of football that has brought consistent energy to this defense over the last several seasons.  In all likelihood, these responsibilities will now fall on second-year player and Alabama product Dont'a Hightower.  

The Patriots won in impressive fashion Saturday, beating Andrew Luck and the upstart Colts 43-22 and earning a trip to Denver where they will compete in their eighth AFC title game in thirteen seasons.  Much of the story after thrashing Indianapolis on the ground for four quarters was the emergence of running back LeGarrette Blount, and how he has become a major contributor on offense over the last several weeks.  Rightfully so, too- Blount set a franchise record with four touchdowns on the night, including three in the first half, and set the tone for a physically dominant New England rushing attack. 

But the defense also showed up big, thanks in large part to the aforementioned Hightower, and fellow linebacker Jamie Collins.  

Hightower has come on strong over the last month.  When the team's most consistent all around backer and defensive signal caller Jerod Mayo was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle in October, Hightower was thrust into a much more prominent role.  In addition to receiving the headset in his helmet and assuming the responsibility of relaying the defensive call to the other 10 members of the defense, Hightower was also forced to venture more into empty space and cover athletic tight ends and running backs.

Hightower failed to consistently show up in this area earlier in the season.  He struggled mightily against athletic running quarterbacks (Geno Smith and Cam Newton), and seemed to take poor angles to ball carriers.  Perhaps it's simply been a case of settling down or having a better feeling for the defense, but whatever the causes, Hightower's improvement is a very positive sign.  In Saturday's game, he was decisive and aggressive, and consistently ran downhill to meet runners at the line of scrimmage.  He also hauled in one of Andrew Luck's four interceptions, marking his first pick of the entire year.  One of the knocks on Hightower all year was that he had failed to make an "impact" play (one that shows up on the stat sheet), but he's hitting his stride at the right time and the impact on the middle of the defense is obvious.  

Ditto for rookie Jamie Collins, who unlike Hightower, was used sparingly by coaches for the first half of the season.  Due to Mayo's injury, Collins started the final six games down the stretch, and is beginning to show Patriots fans just what Bill saw in the Southern Mississippi prospect to select him 52nd overall in April's draft.   

Collins was truly all over the field on Saturday.  He finished the game with 6 tackles, 1 sack, 2 tackles for loss, 3 quarterback hits, and an impressive interception on Luck that he returned for 20 yards.  Add in a beautiful job of covering 6'6" tight end Colby Fleener with a pass defended in the end-zone, it was easily Collins' most complete performance of the season.  

"He does everything," said safety Devin McCourty after the win.  "He's one of those freakish athletes that can do what we do as defensive backs as a linebacker."

Indeed, the athleticism that McCourty alludes to will be a staple of Collins' game for the foreseeable future.  In college, playing for a putrid 0-12 Southern Miss team his senior season, Collins had accumulated experience at the safety, linebacker, and defensive end positions.  Throw in the fact that he was an all-state quarterback in high school, his athletic ability has never really been in doubt. 

The question marks surrounding Collins entering the draft was how teams could utilize him on an every down basis.  Would he be an end in a traditional 4-3 defense?  Would he rush the passer as a linebacker in a 3-4 scheme?  Could he fit as an off the line, drop into coverage linebacker?  Due to his size (6-3, 250 pounds), he's more of a hybrid type player that can fill a number of different needs on a defense.  

And he's beginning to do just that.  

Tags: AFC title game, Andrew Luck, coverage, Defense, Dont'a Hightower, Football, Jamie Collins, New England, New England Patriots, NFL, sack

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