With the Patriots off this weekend, we’ve got our Bye Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the Patriots. We’ve looked at the offense. Now, we flip things around to the defensive side of the ball — we opened with the defensive line . Now, it’s the linebackers.
Overview: The New England linebackers have fallen into two distinct camps over the first eight games of the season. There’s the Jerod Mayo –Brandon Spikes –Dont’a Hightower troika, which has become one of the better young linebacking corps in the AFC, particularly against the run. Mayo leads the AFC in tackles, has forced three fumbles, intecepted a pass and recovered a fumble. Spikes has three forced fumbles, and while there are times where he appears lost in pass defense, he appears well on his way to the first 100-tackle season of his career while developing into a classic, run-stuffing thumper. And while Hightower has struggled to stay healthy because of a hamstring injury, he has a pair of sacks, three quarterback hits and is perhaps New England’s best linebacker when it comes to pass coverage. (It will be interesting to see what will happen to the Patriots’ pass defense when Hightower is back to 100 percent. Not saying that the issues will completely disappear, but Hightower’s play over the first few games certainly suggests that things will improve.) The rest of the group is primarily for depth and special teams work, with Tracy White  continuing to be a valued member of the unit because of the value he displays in both areas on a weekly basis.
Depth chart (stats based on coaches’ film): Jeff Tarpinian, Hightower (24 solo tackles, two sacks, three quarterback hits), Mayo (64 solo tackles, one sack, three forced fumbles), Spikes (50 solo tackles, three forced fumbles), White, Mike Rivera, Niko Koutouvides. (Bobby Carpenter  has been on and off the roster throughout the first half of the season, usually at the expense of Tarpinian and Koutouvides. Meanwhile, Dane Fletcher  is on injured reserve.)
Best moment: Mayo, Hightower (when healthy) and Spikes have provided several big moments this season, but our pick goes to Spikes and his forced fumble on the goal line late in the first half of the win over the Bills. The hit on Buffalo running back C.J. Spiller was a colossal momentum changer — New England was struggling to that point, and a big stop deep in its own territory turned the tide. It was one of two forced fumbles on the day for Spikes.
Worst moment: We listed the Ravens game as the worst moment for the defensive line, but it also holds true for the linebackers as well. The Patriots defense  allowed a season-high in passing yards (382 passing yards by Joe Flacco ) and it was the only game where an opposing running back topped 100 yards on the ground (Ray Rice , 101 rushing yards) against New England. That combined with the fact that they couldn’t get off the field on third down over the last two-plus quarters makes this a no-brainer.
By the numbers: Per Pro Football Focus, Mayo leads the Patriots with 31 stops on the season. (A stop is defined as a ‘solo defensive tackle which constitutes an offensive failure, including a sack.’) Spikes is second with 23.
Money quote: ‘Those guys have a lot of energy and they’re excited about playing and they’re happy about playing the game. It’s fun to coach them, and it’s great to see them go out there and play. They’re having fun, so that’s a good thing for us.’ — linebackers coach Pepper Johnson on his group this season.