The New England Patriots have made numerous changes on defense since their last Super Bowl championship after the 2004 season. One trend that has stood out has been the steady use of five or six defensive backs on a regular basis and leaving a linebacker (usually the middle linebacker) on the sidelines on second and third downs. With two linebackers on the field the Patriots were versatile enough to rush the quarterback, control the running game, and have the ability and agility to drop into coverage in zones or lock-up an opposing tight end.
In 2012 the Patriots had settled into a rotation with first round draft pick Dont’a Hightower and veteran captain Jerod Mayo manning the outside linebacker position with hard-hitting Brandon Spikes in the middle. With Spikes, the Patriots had a powerful run-stuffer who could shake off blocks and be a physical presence in the defensive game plan against the run.
Veteran Jerod Mayo was injured in week six of 2013 against New Orleans and was lost for the rest of the season. The linebacking group underwent a major change as the Patriots had to play without Mayo for the first time since 2007. Rookie Jamie Collins moved into an outside Will (weakside) linebacker spot and the Patriots had Hightower playing at Mayo’s Sam (strongside) linebacker spot.
An acrimonious situation with Spikes reared its head in the postseason as he was placed on injured reserve before the Divisional Playoff round after he was late to practice due to the snow. Although it was clear that Spikes planned to test the free agent market, the injured reserve issue effectively ended his tenure in New England as there were too many hard feelings for the two sides to come together for a contract extension.