BBD Assistant Editor: Joe Marino
The Buffalo Bills have finished among the NFL’s bottom five in run defense in every season since 2009. As part of their effort to stop that trend, the Bills agreed to terms with former New England Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes, who has been rated by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) as the NFL’s No. 1 inside linebacker in run defense in each of the past two seasons, on a one-year deal.
A large factor in the Bills’ inability to stop the run has been their inconsistent play from the linebacker position. Spikes, along with Keith Rivers and two draft picks, were added this offseason to provide consistent play at a position group that has been lacking stability in recent years.
A highly touted high school recruit from North Carolina, Spikes played his college football in the SEC at the University of Florida. Spikes went on to become a three-year starter, two-year team captain, two-time national champion, three-time all-SEC linebacker and two time consensus All-American.
Spikes’ accolades resulted from his standout play in a Florida career he finished with 307 tackles, 31.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and six interceptions, including four returned for touchdowns.
A second-round pick (No. 62 overall) by the New England Patriots in the 2010 NFL draft, Spikes was one of the key components in the middle of the Patriots defense in each of his four seasons with the team. Across 51 NFL games, throughout which he has primarily been a two-down defender, Spikes has accumulated 286 total tackles, 16 tackles for loss, five forced fumbles and 13 pass breakups.
Spikes’ 2013 season came to an abrupt ending when he was placed on injured reserve before the team’s first playoff game. He battled a knee injury throughout last season, but according to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, his move to IR was partly because of a late arrival to practice. Spikes’ contract expired at season’s end, and the Patriots did not retain him, which opened the door for him to sign with the Bills.
Brandon Spikes is one of the premier downhill run-stopping defenders in the game. He operates well between the tackles and in short areas. When a play is in front of him, he has excellent ability to stack and shed to disrupt run plays. His instincts on run defense are outstanding.
Spikes takes on and sheds blockers as well as any linebacker in the NFL today. When fullbacks or lead blockers attempt to clear Spikes out of his gap, Spikes consistently holds his ground and allows no movement or hole to be created for the ballcarrier. Even when Spikes is unable to make a tackle, the way he dominates blockers at the point of attack disrupts the designs of plays and can lead to minimal or no gains.
Spikes has a nose for the football and tremendous ability to find his way to the football. He has no issues working through traffic. He is a good finisher and a secure, wrap-up tackler. With his aggressive, attacking demeanor, Spikes makes a plethora of plays at or near the line of scrimmage.
In zone pass coverage, Spikes can re-route receivers and disrupt their timing because he has good zone awareness and gets a solid jam on receivers that come through his zone.
While Spikes does have good zone coverage awareness, his ability to drop into pass coverage is lacking. This is primarily due to his lack of speed to close on receivers and react to passes thrown in his area. He lacks fluidity in his drops and cannot flip his hips and run with the suddenness needed to be a viable pass defender.
Spikes doesn’t have sideline to sideline range and does not make many plays outside the tackles. His lack of speed limits his ability to chase and be a factor on the perimeter.
How Brandon Spikes Fits the Bills Defense
As BBD’s Dan Hope wrote following Spikes’ signing in March, he could be the answer to the Bills’ problems on run defense.
The addition of Spikes upgrades the Bills at two positions. First, they now employ arguably the best run-stopping middle linebacker in football. Second, the acquisition allows second-year linebacker Kiko Alonso to move outside to the weakside linebacker position, which is more suitable for his skillset. Alonso has superb coverage skills and range which can be utilized more effectively on the outside.
Despite all that Spikes brings to the table, he was only signed to a one-year, prove-it deal with the Bills. He should be motivated to turn a great 2014 season into a long-term, lucrative extension with the Bills or another team.
While Spikes could only prove to be a one-year solution at the position, the Bills drafted his clone when they selected Louisville linebacker Preston Brown in the third round of this year’s draft. Brown is in position to learn behind Spikes as a rookie, then potentially claim his spot in 2015. If Brown is unable to prove himself as the future at the position, the Bills should have enough cap space to secure Spikes for years to come after examining what he brings to the team in 2014.
On a deal worth just $3.25 million, according to Spotrac, there was little risk involved, and a lot to gain, by adding Spikes to the defense. It could be the move that anchors the Bills run defense this season and finally pushes them out of the league’s bottom five in run defense.