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Bye-Week Breakdown: Linebackers

10.23.11 at 10:00 pm ET
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Brandon Spikes has been a pleasant surprise this season. (AP)

With the Patriots off this weekend, we’ve got our Bye-Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the Patriots at the six-week mark. We’ve already broken down every one of the offensive positions so far, as well as the defensive line. Now, we take a look at the linebackers.

Depth chart: Rob Ninkovich, Jermaine Cunningham, Gary Guyton, Jerod Mayo, Dane Fletcher, Brandon Spikes, Tracy White, Jeff Tarpinian.

Overview: While we acknowledged that the defensive line had to deal with scheme changes (from a four-man front to a three-man front) over the start of the season, the same has been true for the linebackers, who are now operating out of a different system from the traditional Patriots 3-4 that the franchise had predominantly used the last several years.

Despite the scheme changes, as a group the linebackers have performed pretty much as well as can be expected over the course of the first six games. Before his knee injury, Mayo was his usual dominant self, and Ninkovich does a serviceable job setting the edge on the outside and occasionally setting up as an outside rusher  (although that’s certainly less this year with more four-man fronts). Meanwhile, Guyton remains more of a presence on passing downs, Cunningham struggles to find a niche (he more than anyone was likely hindered by the switch to the four-man front) and White and Tarpinian are more special teamers than anything else.

The biggest surprise — of late, anyway — has been the play of Spikes. He ended last season as a real mess, coming off the four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on PEDs, and started very slowly because of injury. But getting many of the reps in place of an injured Mayo, the second-year linebacker out of Florida has clearly made advancements in the system. He still has a tendency to swing for the fences (he misses on at least one bad tackle attempt per game), but his play as of late makes you wonder if New England might consider utilizing a defensive scheme that includes some combination of Mayo and Spikes in the middle.

Meanwhile, it certainly appears that Spikes has taken many snaps away from Fletcher at the inside spot. Fletcher remains a positive presence, but as Spikes has started to emerge, Fletcher’s snap percentage has decreased dramatically since the start of the season — according to Pro Football Focus, he played 45 percent of the snaps in the season-opener but has played just one snap the last two weeks. He has struggled with injury over the course of the season, but you also have to wonder if Spikes has moved ahead of Fletcher for good on the depth chart.

Best moment: Spikes (with help from Vince Wilfork) sniffing out a shovel pass on the goal line late against the Cowboys and blowing the play up in the backfield. The key red zone stop helped hold Dallas at bay and set the stage for a dramatic New England comeback win.

Worst moment: We’ve referenced this several times during the Bye-Week Breakdown series, but the Buffalo loss remains the low point for the New England defense, linebackers included.

By the numbers, according to Nuggetpalooza: Patriots linebackers have been targeted on 60 passes this year but have defensed only one of those (1.7 percent), the lowest percentage in the league. Ninkovich has the one pass defensed (in 12 targets). Guyton (0-for-16), Mayo (0-for-12), Spikes (0-for-12), Fletcher (0-for-7), and A.J. Edds (0-for-1) make up the rest. Entering this weekend, the 49ers (16), Ravens (12), and Raiders (11) lead the league in linebacker passes defensed.

Money quote: “He’s one of the best I’ve coached, one of the best in the league at doing that. I can’t imagine him playing anywhere else at this point.” Bill Belichick on Mayo and whether or not he would remain a middle or inside linebacker as opposed to moving outside

Read More: Bill Belichick, Brandon Spikes, bye week breakdown, Dane Fletcher
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