Brandon Spikes gives Patriots edge

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- With just 1 minute, 19 seconds remaining in the first half and his defense backed up against its own goal line -- once again protecting a short field after a turnover by the New England Patriots' offense -- linebacker Brandon Spikes met Buffalo Bills running back C.J. Spiller in the hole, forcing a fumble and keeping his team within a one-touchdown striking distance after an underwhelming first half.

The turnover was a momentum-altering play in the Patriots' 52-28 Week 4 win, as coach Bill Belichick explained after the game.

"That was a huge play. It was a big momentum play," he said. "We were getting the ball to start the third quarter, so we felt like we would have a chance to cut into it a little. We thought if we could just get out of there with a field goal, but the turnover was huge."

It was one of two forced turnovers by Spikes, a third-year player that veteran nose tackle Vince Wilfork says is ascending to an elite level.

"He had a huge game. I mean, he caused two, three fumbles. One was on the goal line, that was huge, that was seven points," Wilfork said. "He's coming into his own, he's becoming an elite player, and you know what, we're going to need that from everybody."

It's not the first time Spikes has swung the momentum of a game this season; he jarred the football loose from Arizona Cardinals running back Ryan Williams as he attempted to milk the clock late in a Week 2 clash.

Though the Patriots ultimately were unable to convert a potential winning field goal, Spikes afforded his team a chance to win, a positive sign for a defense that was oft criticized during the Patriots' run to Super Bowl XLVI a season ago.

After being limited throughout training camp as he recovered from offseason knee injury, Spikes has played a pivotal role in a linebacking trio that has become part of the teeth of the Patriots' run defense, one that has excelled through four games.

But perhaps no player is better described as a tone-setter than Spikes, the aggressive, downhill linebacker who is unafraid to initiate contact with any opponent that comes his way.

Belichick, who has previously compared Spikes to current Patriots linebackers coach Pepper Johnson, a standout member of Belichick's defenses with both the New York Giants and Cleveland Browns in previous coaching stops, alluded to Spikes' physicality in postgame remarks.

"We know he's a heavy hitter," he said. "He had a couple of solid hits in the game. He brings a physical element to the run game and the tackling."

Spikes' ferocious and fearless approach, as well as his effervescent demeanor on the game field and during practice appear to fire up his defensive teammates and bring a unique edge to his team.

His demeanor stands in contrast to the linebackers who flank him in the Patriots' base defense, Jerod Mayo and rookie linebacker Dont'a Highower, whom Mayo has described as "old souls."

When gelled together as one, the trio ranks among the most physical and productive in the NFL.

Pass coverage limitations often lead to Spikes being substituted when the team turns to its sub defense, but he has been on the field for 190 of 272 defensive snaps a quarter of the way through the regular season (snap counts include a slight margin for error).

Spikes notched his fourth career pass defended on Sunday and appeared to earn more playing time in the sub defense when Hightower left with a hamstring injury.

It's possible that Spikes' role within the defense will continue to evolve, especially if Hightower's injury endures into Week 5, but what has already become clear during the early going of the 2012 season is that Spikes is a difference-making linebacker on a team that needs one.

Field Yates covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.