With the postseason underway, we’ve got the Patriots Positional Playoff Preview, a week-long, position-by-position look at the Patriots and how they look heading into the postseason. We covered the offense a few days ago, and now, it’s the defense. We started with the secondary  — now, it’s the linebackers.
Depth chart (stats based on coaches film review): Jerod Mayo  (184 tackles, 3 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, 1 INT, 4 forced fumbles), Brandon Spikes  (128 tackles, 1 sack, 5 quarterback hits, 7 passes defensed, 5 forced fumbles), Dont’a Hightower (75 tackles, 4 sacks, 9 quarterback hits, 3 passes defensed), Tracy White  (10 tackles), Mike Rivera (12 special teams tackles), Niko Koutouvides (8 special teams tackles).
Overview: The combination of Mayo, Spikes and Hightower combined to form the nucleus of one of the best young linebacking corps in the league this season. Mayo continues to serve as the captain of the defense, and with the addition of Hightower and the continued maturation of Spikes, was freed up to do more things this season than he did in year’s past. Spikes still has occasional issues in coverage, but has certainly improved to the point this year where he’s become an every down linebacker. (While he occasionally swings and misses when it comes to shooting the gaps, he remains one of the most feared linebackers in the league when it comes to stopping the run.) And Hightower had some growing pains — there were some distressing dips late in the season — but he’s given every indication that he should be a force in the league for year’s to come.
Going into the playoffs, the group will be counted on heavily as part of a rapidly improving defensive unit. One of the areas worth monitoring very close will be the health of Spikes, who has been dogged by knee and ankle issues for a sizable portion of the season. Spikes, who is one of New England’s two most important defenders when it comes to stopping the run (the other being Vince Wilfork ), played just eight snaps over the last two weeks of the regular season, presumably to allow him to be at full strength once the playoffs roll around. It will be interesting to keep an eye on him right out of the gate as he jumps headfirst into the postseason — against a team that’s one of the better running teams in the league.
Best Moment: In the fourth quarter of a Dec. 2 game against the Dolphins, Miami was sitting on the Patriots’ 7-yard line, looking to cut into a 10-point New England lead. After the ball was snapped, Mayo took off on what appeared to be a delayed blitz, blasting up the middle on third down and drilling Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill for an eight-yard loss. The most important of the Patriots’ three sacks on the afternoon, the well timed tackle-for-loss kept the Dolphins out of the end zone and forced them to kick a field goal. Mayo’s sack helped preserve a lead of at least a touchdown, keeping Miami at bay and allowing New England to escape South Florida with a narrow win.
Worst Moment: Spikes had some issues in coverage in the first half of the first game against the Bills, where he was clearly targeted by Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick . However, he was able to right the ship nicely in the second half and come away with a second-half pass defense, as well as a pair of forced fumbles.
By the numbers: For the season, Spikes had seven passes defensed — more than any non-defensive back on the team.
Money quote: ‘We’ve really had three linebackers, with Jerod [Mayo], Dont’a and Brandon [Spikes] and two of these three are on the field in a lot of the nickel passing situations. Usually it’s Jerod, and the other has kind of been split between Dont’a and Brandon [Spikes], but with Brandon out [against the Jaguars], Dont’a got more of those reps. But I really think his overall production on a per-play basis has been pretty consistent, as far as doing the right thing and handling his responsibility and all that. The big plays, obviously there are fewer of them than there are regular plays, so they’re kind of spotted here and there, but Dont’a has been pretty solid for us all the year.’ — Bill Belichick  on Hightower and the rest of the linebackers.