Spikes elevates Patriots' defense

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes never took off his helmet as he answered questions from reporters Tuesday at training camp, a dark visor concealing his eyes.

In many ways, that snapshot of the hard-hitting, stay-under-the-media-radar Spikes said it all. He does things in his own unique way.

Bill Belichick pointed this out in Spikes' rookie season of 2010, when he raved about him early in camp.

"He sees some things that I'm not sure everybody sees," Belichick said at the time. "He's an instinctive player. I don't know it's the textbook way you'd read the plays, but he reads them. It's interesting to work him into our system. ... He's an interesting player to coach."

The 6-foot-2, 255-pound Spikes remains one of defense's most interesting players, in part because when he's played at a high level, the unit has taken on a different personality.
Call it the Spikes Effect. More energy. More passion. Harder hitting. The final two games of 2011, especially Super Bowl XLVI, when Spikes was arguably the team's best defensive player, are shining examples of that.

The big question, however, is whether the Patriots can count on their "interesting" player to show up more consistently in 2012. Spikes has already proven that he's a firecracker in the middle of the defense, but a little more reliability would probably be appreciated by Belichick. The former Florida Gator has been limited to 20 of a possible 32 regular-season games the past two seasons, mostly due to NFL suspension and a knee injury.

If Spikes can put it together in 2012, serving as the middle man between first-round draft choices Dont'a Hightower (strong side) and Jerod Mayo (weak side), the potential for the linebacker unit, and revamped defense as a whole, seems great.

On Tuesday, it was the first glimpse of what it could look like, with Spikes' practice workload receiving a boost after a let's-take-it-slow start to training camp. He had undergone offseason knee surgery, and the idea was to ease him in slowly, especially after he initially didn't pass his physical upon reporting for camp (he was cleared days later). This was the next step in his progression.

"I'm happy to be out there running around again," Spikes said, the helmet still fastened tight on his head. "It's kind of frustrating watching from the sideline. To get out there, run around, have some contact, it feels good."

While Spikes' game thrives off contact, his downfield interception in the AFC Championship Game was a reminder that he's more than just a thumper playing inside in the 3-4 alignment. He can do more, and it looks like he will be given that opportunity in the team's new scheme.

If the Patriots are going to sacrifice some bulk on the defensive line, as it looks like they will to form a faster, more athletic unit, they'll need their bigger linebackers to rise up against a ground-and-pound type of approach.

That is Spikes' forte, as his big hits and high-energy style have had an infectious effect on his teammates. Last year, defensive end Rob Ninkovich said Spikes is the type of player he likes to be around on game day "because he's so amped up and ready to roll. His physical play is just at a higher level. He's just very physical."

He's also unique from a size standpoint, his height in the middle of the defense drawing comparisons to former Giants linebacker Pepper Johnson.

"Kind of like Pepper, Brandon has power," Belichick said earlier this year. "He strikes with a good thump."

The thump was back on Tuesday, and if things go according to plan, it will be front and center for the full regular-season slate.

Then things could get real interesting.