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Patriots Positional Playoff Preview: Linebackers

01.10.12 at 12:23 am ET
By

Jerod Mayo (AP)

With the Patriots off this weekend and the postseason ready to begin, we’ve got the Patriots Positional Playoff Preview, a weeklong, position-by-position look at the Patriots and how they look heading into the postseason. We’ve already looked at the offensive side of the ball, as well as the defensive line. Now, it’s the linebackers:

Depth chart (stats from coaches film review): Rob Ninkovich (62 tackles, 46 solo, 6.5 sacks, 9 quarterback hits, 2 interceptions), Gary Guyton (46 tackles, 33 solo, 1 interception), Jerod Mayo (103 tackles, 67 solo, 1 sack, 6 quarterback hits, 2 interceptions), Dane Fletcher (37 tackles, 25 solo, 6 quarterback hits), Brandon Spikes (51 tackles, 36 solo, 1 quarterback hit), Tracy White (25 tackles, 19 solo). Jeff Tarpinian and Jermaine Cunningham are on injured reserve.

Overview: It was a rocky year for the New England linebackers, who, in truth, have been asked to do a lot. There have been shifts from a three-man front to a four-man front and back again over the course of the year. Mayo, Fletcher and Spikes were all sidelined at one time or another for multiple weeks with injuries. And the Patriots defense hasn’t played all that well for large chunks of the season. But now, with the postseason looming, they appear to be healthy, and while the stats aren’t where they should be, they remain a key part to the success of the New England defense.

One of the most intriguing members of the New England linebacking corps is Ninkovich. In my mind, he was most affected by the move from a three-man front to a four-man front at the start of the season, and appeared to struggle at times with the change in responsibilities. However, over the second half of the season, his numbers have improved, particularly when it came to setting the edge against the run and rushing the passer. (He had 14 quarterback pressures and four sacks over one five-game stretch toward the end of the season, and was third on the team behind Andre Carter and Mark Anderson in both sacks with 6.5 and quarterback hits with nine.) He has lined up as a down lineman on occasion, as well as an outside linebacker, and his versatility and smarts make him one of the most important parts of the New England defense.

One opposing scouts take on the Patriots’ wide receivers heading into the postseason: “Getting Mayo back is huge while other guys filled in and got reps. The all seem to execute and know what they are supposed to be doing. Lack a great playmaker, but Ninkovich is a productive guy run and pass. All play with great motor and instincts. Benefit from beef in front of them on the inside running game. Can be tested if blockers can get on them.”

Best Moment: One of the best plays of the season for the defense came late in the win over Washington when Mayo made an acrobatic interception of a Rex Grossman pass, coming away with the tipped ball to save a win over the Redskins.

Worst Moment: The Patriots linebackers have struggled in pass coverage all season long and so you could make a case for several games, but we’re going to go with the loss to Pittsburgh. In that one, not a single member of New England’s linebacking corps received a positive grade for their work in pass coverage in the loss, according to Pro Football Focus.

By the numbers: Mayo finished the 2011 season with 103 total tackles, registering 100 tackles for the fourth straight year. He is the first player in New England history to register 100 tackles in his first four NFL seasons. He is the fifth Patriots player to register at least four consecutive 100-tackle seasons.

Money quote: “He’s one of the best I’ve coached.” – Bill Belichick on Mayo

Read More: Andre Carter, Brandon Spikes, Dane Fletcher, Gary Guyton
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