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Bye-week breakdown: Linebackers

11.11.13 at 9:32 pm ET

With the Patriots off this weekend, we’€™ve got our Bye-Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the team. We kicked things off with a look at special teams and offense. We opened on the defensive side of the ball with the defensive line — now, it’s the linebackers.

Overview: For the Patriots, the entire linebacking picture changed when Jerod Mayo went down with a season-ending pectoral injury in an October win over the Saints. The veteran wasn’t necessarily an elite linebacker across the board, but he did so many things really well: run defense, pass defense, communication, leadership. In the weeks since Mayo went on season-ending injured reserve, it’s been a work in progress as New England tries to find the right combination when it comes to defending the run as well as the pass.

Dont’a Hightower has certainly taken steps in the right direction over the last year-plus; however, he might not be at the level where he can step into Mayo’s role immediately. (Few people can — Mayo was in his sixth season as a professional, while Hightower just began his second.) That being said, Hightower played well in Mayo’s absence. Meanwhile, Brandon Spikes remains an elite run-stopper, while the Dane FletcherJamie Collins combo is progressing nicely. And youngsters Steve Beauharnais and Chris White have provided depth and special teams value over the first half of the season.

(One thing that has been noticeable over the last few weeks — when the Patriots have moved from their four-man front to a three-man front with four linebackers, Rob Ninkovich has been a stand-up, edge-of-the-line guy. In other words, an outside linebacker. Ninkovich hinted at the fact that he had an expanded role since Mayo and Wilfork had gone down, so it’s no surprise to see him standing up on occasion at his old linebacker spot. That’s not to suggest it’ll be a permanent thing, but instead, another indication the Patriots value players — defensive hybrids, really — who can fill multiple spots. Especially when they need help after losing Pro Bowlers in Mayo and Wilfork.)

As the urgency starts to increase and the most important stretch of the season looms, more will be asked of the linebacking crew as the defense looks to stay consistent down the stretch. Without Mayo, it will be a tall order — whether or not the group is up to the challenge will go a long way toward determining the ultimate legacy of the 2013 defense.

Depth chart: Dont’a Hightower (69 tackles, one sack), Brandon Spikes (84 tackles, one interception), Jamie Collins (11 tackles), Dane Fletcher (six tackles, two sacks), Steve Beauharnais, Chris White.

Best moment: Led in large part by the linebackers, New England was able to do a terrific job disguising its looks in the second half of the win over the Dolphins. That was the spark for six second-half sacks for the Patriots.

Worst moment: The loss of Mayo against the Saints.

By the numbers: 22. Spikes had a career-high with 22 total tackles at Cincinnati on Oct. 6. His previous best was 16 tackles at the Jets on Nov. 22, 2012. It is the highest tackle total for a Patriots player since Mayo had 23 total tackles vs. the New York Jets on Nov. 13, 2008. Spikes has four games so far in 2013 with 10 or more tackles ‘€“ 10 vs. Tampa Bay, 22 at Cincinnati, 17 at Jets and 12 vs. Miami.

Money quote: “I just come out and have a good time on Sundays. I don’€™t really pay attention to stuff I can’€™t control — it is what it is,’€ he said. ‘€œI just feel fortunate to be able to play this game. I just want to make the best of it. There’€™s a small margin in the time you get to play, and why not just go have fun? That’€™s all I just base it on — going to have fun. Being happy and playing the game I love.’€ — Spikes, Oct. 11.

Read More: bye week breakdown,



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