FOXBOROUGH — According to the statistics provided by the Patriots, linebacker Brandon Spikes has never had a better game in the NFL than the one he had last week against the Bengals, with an interception and a career-high 22 tackles.
Funny, because the game before that, at Atlanta, Spikes was on the field for only six defensive snaps.
Spikes’s playing time has fluctuated wildly this season: just 16 snaps in the opener at Buffalo, followed by 31 (Jets), 37 (Buccaneers), 6 (Falcons), and then 59 against the Bengals. He’s played in 42 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps through five games; last season, Spikes played 72 percent of the time.
Inconsistent playing time can be frustrating for any player, especially for someone in a contract year — like Spikes is — looking to earn the next big pay day. How’s he dealt with the snap count uncertainty?
“I always want to be on the field to help the team out, be out there running around with the guys. We put so much in throughout the week, you get one opportunity to come out on Sunday and get it done,” Spikes said on Friday after the team’s final practice before Sunday’s visit from the unbeaten Saints. “Sometimes it is a little frustrating, but like I said, whenever my number is called, I’ve just got to go in and play at a high level and get the job done. That’s what I try to do every Sunday.”
Does the reduction in playing time, Spikes was asked, signal that his role might be changing?
“I guess, maybe. I really don’t know,” he said. “I don’t look at it like that, I just come out and have a good time on Sundays. I don’t really pay attention to stuff I can’t control.”
Spikes is known as a big-hitting, aggressive run-stopper, and with defensive tackle Vince Wilfork (Achilles’) out for the season and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly (knee) out for Sunday’s game, he might have an opportunity to see the field more against the pass-happy Saints, just like in Cincinnati. When he’s been out there, Spikes has delivered. Bolstered by Sunday’s monster game, the Patriots have credited him with 41 tackles, second only to the 55 by fellow linebacker Jerod Mayo.
Position players spend a lot of time together: In the huddle, on the sideline, in meetings, usually with lockers close together. Spikes might be frustrated with his playing time, but he certainly hasn’t made it an issue, Mayo said.
“Let me tell you, Brandon comes to work every day and he does his job. We always talk about that here, and he’s a prime example of that,” Mayo said. “Everyone knows Brandon can run up the middle and can cause havoc.”
Spikes is in the final season of the four-year, $3.2 million contract he signed after being picked in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft. He’s had an entertaining NFL career, starting 36 of the 46 games in which he’s appeared (playoffs included), but also serving a four-game suspension as a rookie after violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy, and being fined multiple times for on-field hits deemed flagrant or excessive. He was dinged $7,875 just this week, for wearing red cleats against the Bengals that didn’t conform in color to those worn by his teammates.
He might not always be in compliance, but the Patriots have liked what they’ve seen from the 26-year-old Spikes, who is 6 feet 2 inches and 255 pounds.
“I think Brandon’s been pretty steady for us. He’s a pretty instinctive player, does a good job of reading the quarterback, breaking on the ball,” coach Bill Belichick said. “He’s tall for an inside linebacker, taller than most. His range and his radius there is bigger than a lot of guys. He’s able to get some balls that might go over some 6-foot, 6-1 linebackers that he can make plays on. I think it’s been pretty consistent through his career.”
Consistency is something Spikes takes prides in, along with something else.
“I pride myself on being a difference-maker when I’m on the field,” he said. “I want to get better every week. I just want to be accountable to my teammates, you know?”
Games with an interception (the third of his career) and 22 tackles will do the trick. It came in a losing effort, though, and Spikes and the defense don’t want to turn one loss into two. The defense has been strong this year. Spikes thinks it can get even stronger, as long as the right pieces are put in the right places.
“My opinion is defense wins games and wins championships,” Spikes said. “We’ve got the checkers to do it, we’ve just got to make the right moves.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.