BBD Editor: Dan Hope
The Buffalo Bills continued to bulk up their defensive front seven Friday by signing former New England Patriots middle linebacker Brandon Spikes. The deal, which was first reported by This Given Sunday’s Chris Trapasso Friday afternoon and confirmed by the team early Saturday morning, is a one-year deal worth $3.25 million, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
The new addition could be the missing piece for Buffalo’s talented-yet-flawed front seven.
Despite being led by an elite interior line duo of Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, and finding an immediate standout at middle linebacker in rookie Kiko Alonso, the Buffalo Bills continued to struggle against the run in 2013. For the season, Buffalo ranked 28th in rushing defense with 128.9 yards allowed per game.
While Alonso ranked third among all NFL defenders with 159 total tackles, and became an immediate every-down player and team leader, the root of Buffalo’s defensive problems continued to be at the linebacker level. The rest of Buffalo’s off-ball linebacker rotation, led by Manny Lawson and Nigel Bradham, underperformed throughout the season.
Even Alonso had some issues. While his outstanding athleticism and sideline-to-sideline range allowed him to make plays all over the field, he was inconsistent in his tackling angles and as a downhill run defender, he was too easily neutralized through opposing game planning.
Attacking the run downhill is what Spikes does best, so he just might be exactly what Buffalo needs at middle linebacker. A strong, 6’2”, 255-pound and aggressive defender, Spikes consistently drives through blocks to get to the football, then tackles with authority.
A slower linebacker who struggles in coverage, Spikes is in many ways the antithesis of Alonso as a linebacker, but his ability to fill gaps as a run defender makes him a great fit to complement Alonso.
In his second season, Alonso will shift to weakside linebacker, a move that fits his skill set well, was confirmed by Bills general manager Doug Whaley on Friday and that opens up the starting middle linebacker spot for Spikes.
How Spikes Can Make the Bills Defense Better
First and foremost, it’s important for the Bills to recognize what Spikes is and what Spikes isn’t. Most of his work on defense comes “in the box.” He has a great ability to make impact plays in short areas, but is not a player who will make plays from sideline to sideline, and he is a player who tends to be overmatched by downfield coverage assignments.
Coming from what might be the NFL’s most schematically-diverse defense in New England, Spikes shouldn’t have much trouble adjusting to whatever defensive scheme new Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz deploys. Furthermore, any issues Spikes has in his transition to the Bills should be eased by Pepper Johnson, Buffalo’s newly-hired defensive line coach, who was Spikes’ linebacker coach for the past two seasons, and was in New England for all four of Spikes’ years in Foxborough.
After playing 72.4 percent of snaps in games played for the Patriots in 2012, Spikes’ snap share in games played dropped to just 59.5 percent in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). His diminished role might have been partially due to injuries and attitude, but considering he played just 18 less snaps in run defense for the season, it had mostly to do with his limitations in pass defense.
The Bills shouldn’t expect Spikes to be an every-down player like Alonso, who did not miss a single snap for Buffalo in 2013. What they should expect Spikes to continue to be is one of the NFL’s best “thumper” linebackers against the run.
PFF has graded out Spikes as the NFL’s best inside linebacker against the run in each of the past two seasons.
While the Bills were frequently able to get offenses off the field on passing downs by generating pressure into the backfield, they consistently left the door open for teams to drive the ball with runs up the middle on early downs. Spikes, a player who can drive runners back on contact, rarely misses tackles and plays with a great understanding of how to fill gaps, can make opponents think twice about rushing up the gut when he is on the field.
How the Bills Stack Up at Linebacker for 2014
While we won’t know exactly how the Bills look at linebacker until they hit the field, the free-agent additions of Spikes and strongside linebacker Keith Rivers make the unit look significantly more promising. A projected starting trio of Alonso, Spikes and Rivers gives the Bills three playmakers at the position and should make Buffalo more formidable at the second level.
On paper, the Bills already have a roster of linebackers good enough for when they take the field to start the 2014 season. Whaley brought some clarity as to how the Bills plan to use Lawson on Friday when he told WGR550, according to BuffaloBills.com’s Chris Brown, that he will be used as a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end. Though he hasn’t proven to be a starting-caliber player, Bradham is likely to still have a role rotationally, while Ty Powell is a promising young player who started to see playing time late last season.
The biggest question mark for the Bills’ linebacker corps now is determining who will play as a coverage linebacker alongside Alonso in nickel packages.
As the head coach of the Detroit Lions last season, Jim Schwartz had two linebackers, Deandre Levy and Stephen Tulloch, who were both regularly every-down players. But while Alonso should take on a similar role to Levy in the 2014 Bills defense, Spikes should not be counted on to stay on the field in coverage situations like Tulloch did as Detroit’s middle linebacker.
Keeping Rivers on the field in nickel packages could be a possibility. Whaley said Friday that he views Rivers as a “four down linebacker” who can “stay in on third down and cover because he’s got athletic ability.” That said, Rivers has never been particularly effective in coverage with either the New York Giants or Cincinnati Bengals, and he has played just 207 coverage snaps in the past two seasons according to PFF.
Unless the Bills have significant confidence in Rivers, Bradham or Powell being an asset in pass coverage, they would be smart to look for a coverage specialist at the position, ideally through the draft. While the additions of Spikes and Rivers make an early-round linebacker pick unlikely, middle-round options as situational pass defenders could include Florida State’s Telvin Smith and Christian Jones, Montana’s Jordan Tripp or Boston College’s Kevin Pierre-Louis.
Should the Bills look to add one more free-agent linebacker, a cheap option could come in another former New England Patriot, Dane Fletcher, who is fluid in pass coverage and could contribute on special teams.