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In a Bill Belichick-coached 3-4 (3 down linemen, 4 linebackers) defensive scheme, the linebacker position has always been considered paramount to success.
The system hinges on the defensive line taking up space and handling multiple offensive linemen, while versatile linebackers take advantage.
(Note: This is why D-lineman never rack up huge amounts of sacks in the 3-4)
In the past much has been made of Belichick’s inclination and affinity towards signing older linebackers, because of both experience and also discipline. In short, the mastermind knew – even though their better playing days may be behind them – he could trust guys like Seau, Colvin, Bryan Cox (the list could go on and on) to try and make not the great play, but the right play.
Tedy Ball-Game (is that copyrighted?) got old.
Mike Vrabel mouthed off about Patriot Place (I still think that helped push him out the door).
Rosevelt Colvin got injured.
And Adalius Thomas just sucked. It wasn’t that he mouthed off. He was a one-hit wonder in 2006 on a great Ravens defense [With Lewis, Suggs, Reed and Co.], hypnotized the Pats front office [no one will ever tell me different], got paid and then the true talent came out. That’s evidenced by the fact no one signed him last season.
Last season the Patriots had to rely on new younger LBs to make an impact. The efforts left fans with mixed results, but the experience garnered will only help the group going forward. And now, instead of savants and wily veterans, the Patriots look for the new-age corps to simply be playmakers.
Today, we’ll take a look at dynamic at the inside linebacker position. We’ll discuss the pros and the cons of the unit, and project what we can expect from one of the most significant positions in this Patriot defense.
The core of the group is Jerod Mayo. Mayo’s range and versatility are advantageous in the passing game, and also the run defense. His 175 tackles led the NFL last season. He’s responsible in his gap discipline, and generally makes all the calls on defense.
Mayo is one of the defensive captains for New England. The coach trusts him, and at the tender age of 25, Mayo heads into this season following his first Pro Bowl selection as one of the leaders of the defense along-side Vince Wilfork.
(I oft think that Mayo is Chara, and Wilfork is the Thomas of the Pats D)
While Mayo is a stalwart of the Patriot defense, the big question centers around who should be patrolling the middle of the 3-4 by his side.
One answer is Gary Guyton.
Guyton, hailing from Georgia Tech, came into the league with Mayo, but under much different circumstances. Mayo was a heralded top-10 draft pick. Meanwhile, Guyton (who is Mayo’s best friend on the team) went undrafted and made the team out of training camp in 2008.
Guyton’s been praised for his speed and playmaking ability. As previously mentioned these are both huge assets in playing in a 3-4 base defense. HOWEVER, Guyton’s lack of strength and proclivity to be pushed around in run-defense hurts the one-time starter’s chances of regaining the role he covets from….
Spikes had a solid rookie campaign. His play is reminiscent of Bryan Cox. He’s staunch against the run, an intimidating presence to flank receivers going across the middle, but also a liability in the passing game. The latter issue will become more and more of a detriment to Spikes, since the league is exponentially evolving towards the pass.
Though, the Florida product did assimilate better as the season progressed in pass-defense.
One particular play was an interception on Monday Night Football against the New York Jets. With the Jets already in trouble in Foxboro, quarterback Marc Sanchez tried igniting his team to a comeback. He helped put the Jets inside the Patriots’ 10 yard-line, when Spikes flawlessly read a play action pass and came up with a game-clinching interception. (Fast forward to the 3:12 mark of the linked video)
That’s a great example of growth as a player.
Unfortunately late in the season Spikes had an ill-timed league-enforced drug suspension. This hurt the continuity of the defense (which, at the time, was growing steadily), and Spikes’ personal growth.
Playing with Mayo will help whoever is thrown into the mix. Yes, even 3rd option Dane Fletcher. My expectation is for Spikes to retain his starting spot next to Mayo, but Guyton to see significant time because of his prowess in the passing game. This will be a position of strength playing behind a healthier defensive line.
Wednesday, we look towards the outside linebackers…