- Mike Rodak, ESPN Staff Writer
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The day before each game this season, this space will feature one big decision facing Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and his staff, in terms of the game plan.
This week's decision: Who plays sub linebacker?
Last season, the Patriots struggled to find a consistent option next to stalwart Jerod Mayo in their 4-2 nickel defense. In seasons prior, Gary Guyton had filled that role, but in 2011, his contributions tailed off early in the season. Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher were the other options, but both missed chunks of the season due to injuries. The duty, then, fell on Tracy White late in the season.
This offseason, it appeared that the Patriots had found a coverage-oriented linebacker in Bobby Carpenter to act as one of their sub 'backers, but he was released last weekend. The top choices remaining, then, are first-round pick Dont'a Hightower, Spikes and White.
Why is this important? The Titans, who in recent seasons have been a run-first team, shifted to a Run 'n' Shoot-style offensive system this offseason, under coordinator Chris Palmer. They figure to use more three- and four-receiver sets, which could put the sub defense on the field more often.
In addition, Belichick and his staff will have to juggle several balls when it comes to their linebackers. Jake Locker is a mobile quarterback who could justify using a "spy" linebacker (Fletcher typically has this role, but is on injured reserve), while running back Chris Johnson is one of the fastest players in the NFL. Tight end Jared Cook also poses a significant threat.
What the Patriots do with their linebackers in this game could be key. Mayo figures to be on the field all three downs, but next to him, do the Patriots use Hightower, Spikes or White, or do they use a "money" safety like Tavon Wilson or Nate Ebner and have that player spy Locker or Johnson out of the backfield? Would they use this dime package even against a base offensive set from the Titans? Would doing so risk a mismatch against Cook in the middle of the field?
What do you think? Who should play sub linebacker on Sunday? Join the discussion in the comments section below.