STUCK IN THE MIDDLE: PATRIOTS LINEBACKERS:
When the Patriots drafted linebacker Jamie Collins in the second round of the NFL Draft this spring, it appeared to be a sign that the team was acknowledging that their SEC Big Three linebackers (Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Dont’a Hightower) may be beasts against the run, but struggled in space covering tight ends and running backs, especially against passing offenses. However, as the Patriots found out against Tony Gonzalez and Atlanta earlier this season, Collins needs additional seasoning as he struggled mightily in pass coverage.
Of course, the Patriots expected coverage assistance at linebacker from Dane Fletcher after he returned from injury, but the undersized linebacker has been limited to special teams and has played less than 40 snaps on the defense. The Patriots top coverage linebacker has been Jerod Mayo, who is on injured reserve and is out for the year. Dont’a Hightower, at 270 lbs, is hardly fleet enough to stay with a running back or tight end in open space and has been abused when in coverage. For example, when New England went to Atlanta and Cincinnati Tony Gonzalez and the Cincinnati tight ends abused the linebackers. Hightower gave up a combine 12 for 14 for 101 yards in coverage in those two games.
The other linebacker who has been on the field consistently has been Brandon Spikes. Despite being on the field on third down much more than in the past, Spikes has been thrown at in coverage only eight time in eight games. For the Patriots, that is exactly how they want the defense to be aligned. Amazingly, in limited attempts, Spikes has been alright only allowing four completions in eight attempts (and don’t forget that interception against Cincinnati).
By limiting the role of linebackers in coverage, the Patriots have compensated by bringing on an extra defensive back to cover the tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. Using the linebackers and defensive ends to chip the tight ends and have rookie Logan Ryan, slot cornerbacks Kyle Arrington and Marquice Cole, or even in Atlanta when Aqib Talib locked on tight end Tony Gonzalez at the end of the game.
This week, with Aqib Talib unlikely to play and Kyle Arrington injured, the Patriots may be forced to use cornerbacks Logan Ryan and Marquice Cole more often in locking down the big three receivers of the Steelers: Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, and Jerricho “Patriots Killer” Cotchery. Add in a healthy tight end Heath Miller and the Steelers are going to be looking to spread the Patriots defense out and attack individual match-ups.
With safeties Steve Gregory and Devin McCourty likely focusing on keeping Antonio Brown under wraps and limiting big plays, a player to watch in the Patriots defensive backfield is rookie safety Duron Harmon. Harmon has not played much outside of special teams in his rookie season–only 86 snaps on defense over eight games–but with second year safety Tavon Wilson out injured most of the season, Harmon may be called upon to match-up on occasion with Steelers tight end Heath Miller. At 6’1” and 200 lbs, Harmon may have the size necessary to help slow down Miller.