"The organizational philosophy I think of as the "Patriot Way" has more to do with the cold-eyed management efficiencies that make game-day performances like [Sunday] possible. Getting great value for money in the bottom three quarters of the roster is the number one piece. That’s what makes it possible to go from [Sebastian] Vollmer to [Marcus] Cannon to [Will] Svitek and still compete. Or from [Jerod] Mayo to [Dont'a] Hightower to [Dane] Fletcher. Number two piece is once you’re done shopping, value your goods not by what you paid but by what they showed you. That’s why KT gets starts over second-round draft picks — and why said second round draft picks don’t sulk." - JohnHannahRules
Breaking: The Patriots haven't had the best of luck with regards to injuries on defense.
This past game against the Broncos showed just how incredible Bill Belichick is, with regards to depth, roster management, and coaching.
Vollmer to Cannon to Svitek.
Jerod Mayo to Dont'a Hightower to Fletcher and Jamie Collins.
Steve Gregory to Duron Harmon.
Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly to Isaac Sopoaga to Chris Jones and Joe Vellano.
Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard to Logan Ryan and Justin freaking Green.
All Pros and top tier talents to middle of the road players to the back of the Patriots roster. And they keep winning.
I think the two most obvious surprises on Sunday were linebackers Jamie Collins and Dane Fletcher. Collins comes out as a rookie linebacker, thrust into a mostly new role against one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Fletcher was an undrafted free agent out of Montana who has missed time due to injury and has rolled around the bottom of the Patriots incredibly deep linebacker depth chart.
Jerod Mayo. Brandon Spikes. Dont'a Hightower. Jamie Collins. Dane Fletcher.
Mayo is the captain, the heart of the defense, the signal caller and the clean-up crew. He's above average in every aspect of the game- solid in coverage, solid against the run- but his strength lies in his intelligence and his ability to understand what is happening on the field at all times.
Spikes is the thumper, a two-down player who is one of the most disruptive run defenders in the league. Reminiscent of Bart Scott with his style of play, Spikes is in a contract year and has been playing extremely well. The Patriots are trying to limit him to rushing downs, as he's a liability in coverage due to his speed, opting to go with the slightly more agile Dont'a Hightower.
Hightower is a sophomore who one could compare to a hybrid of Mayo and Spikes (if you combined their weight as well). Hightower is an average run defender and an average coverage player in the flat, but his versatility makes him an extremely valuable asset. He can play ILB and OLB in the 3-4, as well as DE and LB in the 4-2, as well as DE and OLB in the 4-3. Hightower was second in line for the green dot of play calling when Mayo went down, which speaks to his intelligence and comfort in the defense.
Collins is a rookie and has absurd potential. Mostly used as a pass rusher in college, Collins was a terror in the backfield until the Patriots drafted him in the second round. The Patriots decided to harness his athleticism and have him move backwards, instead of forwards, and tried to teach him how to drop into coverage in order to develop his overall skill set. However, we saw how his pass rush up the A gap on Sunday turned out- look for the Patriots to try to use him in multiple sets as a potential counter to Hightower's skill set.
Fletcher is in his fourth season and has primarily been a special teams player. Now I know of a different Patriot who was a special teamer for four seasons until he was given a chance to start and I wouldn't be surprised if Fletcher was next in line. Fletcher emerged early in his career when he was used as a spy on Ravens running back Ray Rice and he's developed into a solid all-around player. Fletcher was a monster pass rusher in college and it's all too easy to make another comparison to a former Patriot.
Collins was fantastic on Sunday and Fletcher was even better. Collins started off slowly, looking to be a step behind on certain plays on the opening drives, but he emerged as a solid role player with a nose for the ball, tacking on 10 tackles in his 22 snaps.
Fletcher took the field in Hightower's spot as the Patriots needed a little more speed in coverage in exchange for a little less weight in the run defense. Fletcher rewarded the Patriots with a fantastic game, active on all levels of the field and in every scenario.
In my opinion, Collins showed some wonderful growth on defense that he can tag with his great special teams play. Collins earned the right to be sprinkled into the defense more frequently and his multiple versatility as a pass rusher only adds to the ways the Patriots can opt to use him.
Fletcher, on the other hand, earned the right to be a staple linebacker next week. He's a perfect complement to Spikes in the sense that he adds more value in coverage than any linebacker other than Collins, while still adding plus value in run defense and pass rushing.
Fletcher doesn't provide the same knowledge that Mayo had when he was on the field, but their skill sets are pretty similar. Mayo is definitely more comfortable with dropped back into deeper coverages, but Fletcher makes up for it with a little more aggression at the line of scrimmage.
I'd be fine with a package that sees Spikes on the field for the first two downs, with Collins coming in on longer third downs, while Hightower and Fletcher rotate on drives- Hightower when the opposition is more likely to run, Fletcher when they're more likely to pass.
The Patriots are certainly in a fortunate position where they have a glut of talent at a position missing its most important player, and I believe that Fletcher and Collins proved on Sunday that the Patriots can and should incorporate them into the game plan.