Spikes tackles

Beyond the stats: Adding Brandon Spikes to the Run Defense

Spikesfitz

Brandon Spikes was another Boston/New England villain to Buffalo in many Bills-Patriots matchups. He’s a thumping linebacker with the sole intent of stuffing the run and delivering a memorable hit in the process. Now that he’s a Bill, he’s already being embraced as a potential fan favorite. Will the addition of Spikes help shore up the run defense that allowed the fifth-most rushing yards and tenth-highest rushing yards per attempt in 2013?

By my count, Brandon Spikes participated in 667 defensive plays for New England last season (discrepancies from other sources are a result of including penalties that resulted in a “No Play” designation, I didn’t count those here). His playing time accounted for roughly 60% of the Patriots’ defensive plays, but was heavily skewed towards rushing downs. His playing time breakdown from 2013 is laid out in the table below.

Spikes participation

When opposing offenses faced passing situations and used three-wide receiver sets, Spikes often found himself on the sideline. He participated in 46% of New England’s pass defense plays, compared to 77% of the rushing plays (QB scrambles are included here, which may skew the proportion a tiny bit). The linebacker will fill the same role in Buffalo, allowing him to improve the run defense when he’s on the field like he did in New England.

Last season, the Patriot defense “stopped” about 56% of the rushing plays against (stop rate is a Football Outsiders metric that categorizes a stop by keeping the opposing rusher to gain 45% of the yardage needed on first down, 60% on second down, and 100% on third and fourth downs). The Buffalo Bills had an average stop rate of 61.5%, and 58.9% in one-score situations.

When Brandon Spikes did not participate, the Patriots stopped just 50.5% of the rushing plays against (adjusting for kneel downs and one botched field goal attempt). When Spikes was on the field, the team stopped 57.1% of rushing plays. When Spikes was on the field, the Patriot run defense was significantly better than when he wasn’t (p < 0.005).

Of course there’s some sampling bias here, since the Patriots were likely expecting a rushing play when Spikes was on the field. Also, the rate improvement may have had nothing to do with Spikes at all and a function of something else that was happening with Spikes on the field. It is, however, a decent starting point (especially since the defensive stop rate with Spikes on the field drops on passing plays, p < 0.05).

Spikes is a successful run defender because he does a great job fighting blocks and keeping his blockers just out of reach. In this play, Doug Martin runs to the opposite side of the field as Spikes. The linebacker flows to the play side of the field and fights off the right guard’s (Davin Joseph) attempts to clear him away. Once Spikes has Martin in line for a hit, he reverses course on the guard, clearing the blocker, and makes a hard tackle. It’s a nice play that Spikes replicates often.

55 Fight Block

Spikes also isn’t afraid to jump a snap or rush up to the line of scrimmage before the snap. When he times it correctly, he can catch the offensive line off guard and blow into the backfield to break up the run. Here, the Jets were using a 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end, and two receivers) to run the ball to the right side behind a lead-blocking fullback. Spikes (highlighted below) was just caught by the pulling guard or he would have tackled Bilal Powell just as he received the handoff.

Spikes Backfield

His ability to break through the line of scrimmage also proves valuable on passing plays. This time, Spikes walked up the line of scrimmage before the snap and stood between his two defensive linemen above the right guard. He’s able to sneak past the lineman and through his arms to get into the pocket.

LeVeon Bell attempts to block the linebacker but misses, giving Spikes the opportunity to take a run at Ben Roethlisberger. The quarterback releases a weak throw off his back foot. The result of the play is an easy Devin McCourty interception thanks to the Spikes pressure.

Spikes Pressure

When dropping into coverage, Spikes can hold his own on routes in his middle of the field zone, especially when he can give the route-runner a hit or jam at the line of scrimmage. He handles Greg Olsen well here, thanks to a decent jam off the line and a short, shallow route from the tight end.

spikes solid coverage (1)

The burly linebacker gets burned by faster receivers, however, especially when he can’t use his size and strength to disrupt the route. The missed jam causes Spikes to get turned around here and he doesn’t have the speed to recover on this quick slant from Jerricho Cotchery. It’s an easy walk-in touchdown for the Steelers.

Spikes Coverage

Brandon Spikes lined up about everywhere you’d expect a linebacker to be. His positioning was usually dictated by the offensive formation, but the distribution of plays from each position was interesting, especially the plays from the line of scrimmage. The full distribution is depicted below.

Spikes Presnap Counts

His 2013 tackles (his credited ones, at least) didn’t have the same distribution. Spikes had more tackles (on which the Patriots had a 73.6% stop rate on rushing plays) when lining up along the second level. His impact from the plays that he lined up on the line of scrimmage may be muddied a bit, though, because of the interconnection of football players. On the other hand, the Patriots “stopped” just 55% of the rushing plays against when Spikes lined up on the line (and 47% against the pass). The graphic below shows where Spikes lined up before making his 85 tackles.

Tackle Alignment

Above all, Spikes’ presence is vastly important for rushing plays up the middle. His impact is very large in the middle of the field, as the locations of his tackles also points out. The locations of his tackles (the point of initial contact, darker points indicate more than one tackle) are depicted below, and yes, all but one were made less than ten yards past the line of scrimmage.

Spikes tackles

Spikes will likely take a huge load off the Bills’ rush defense, especially up the middle. He’s likely just a two-down player, but he has the ability and potential to significantly increase the team’s stop rate on rushing plays. Maybe his presence will help the Buffalo defense move out of the bottom ten in rushing defense in 2014.

Michael Purinton

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