FOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots have a linebacker controversy. Or maybe it will be a linebacker by committee.
Either way, it’s not exactly a bad problem to have.
After Jerod Mayo went out for the season, it appeared the Patriots planned to use rookie Jamie Collins in his place. New England started the Week 7 Jets game with Collins at outside linebacker in a 3-4. He looked good rushing Geno Smith, but to put it nicely, he was a liability against the run.
So the Patriots chose to get bigger on defense. That meant using three 300-pounders at once against the Jets — Marcus Forston with Joe Vellano and Chris Jones. It also led to New England trading for Isaac Sopoaga.
On Sunday night, the Patriots nixed that strategy for the week. They stayed in nickel for the entire game, never straying from using two interior linemen, two defensive ends, two linebackers, two safeties and three cornerbacks. Sopoaga barely played. Jones and Vellano got the bulk of the action at defensive tackle.
At linebacker, Dont’a Hightower started the game, but came out after allowing a touchdown to Jacob Tamme. Dane Fletcher spent the rest of the game in Hightower’s role with the communication helmet. Fletcher had seen his snaps increase since Week 8 against Miami. He was the team’s dime linebacker against the Dolphins and Steelers, then he was mixed into nickel and dime against the Panthers.
Obviously, the Patriots played a lot better in the second half against Denver with Fletcher than they did in the first half with Hightower. Jamie Collins also had a strong game, his best by far in the NFL. He played 23 snaps and had 10 tackles. That’s pretty active. His two best plays came on a blitz when he trucked Knowshon Moreno and a pass breakup over Wes Welker on the Broncos’ final play on offense.
Brandon Spikes also had a good game. His role is to clog the middle of the field and disrupt the running game. He did what he could against the Broncos despite little help from his interior linemen. Considering how poor the middle of the Patriots’ defense has been this season at stopping the run, New England needs Spikes out there at least on obvious rushing downs.
That appears to leave Hightower out of the mix, right? He appeared to get benched against Denver and his replacements played well. Well, not so fast.
Hightower has been a starter since he came to New England and has had more positive moments than negative ones since being drafted. He was the player who initially got Mayo’s communication helmet, though he lost it to Steve Gregory before the safety got hurt.
Hightower’s still a good run-clogger, when he doesn’t get caught up by an offensive lineman in the second level, and he’s had some good moments in coverage, especially toward the beginning of the season.
The Patriots’ best course of action may be to use their linebackers like they use their running backs — by committee. It’s not a traditional way to go, but traditional may have gone out the window when Mayo got hurt.
One way to mix and match the linebackers would be to use Spikes and Hightower in the base defense if the Patriots are going big (Rob Ninkovich would be the third linebacker). If New England goes back to a smaller front, Spikes would be a mainstay in base and Hightower, Fletcher and Collins could rotate for the final two spots.
In nickel, the Patriots can use Spikes and one of the other three backers on early downs (to maintain a balance of strong run and pass defense) and Fletcher and Collins on third down — the Patriots’ best coverage linebackers.
There wouldn’t be a ton of continuity if they use a rotation, but it would be effective in keeping everyone fresh. It seemed like Hightower’s play dropped off a little when he was expected to be an every-down, Mayo-type player. Hightower doesn’t have quite the athleticism or instincts that Mayo has. At least at this point in his career.
The nice thing about the Patriots’ four starting-caliber linebackers is that everyone can do a bit of everything. Spikes isn’t as great in coverage as he is against the run, but he’s not a complete liability. And Collins looked better — albeit in limited snaps — against the run in Week 12 than he did in Week 7.
From play to play, series to series and week to week, the Patriots’ defense will have to pick whether they want to be stronger against the run or pass. It’s either going to be Sopoaga and Spikes clogging the middle of the field or Vellano and Collins to play the pass. There isn’t a lot of deception there, but the Patriots will work with what they have.