Hannable: Dont’a Hightower loss could be one Patriots can’t overcome

Ryan Hannable
October 26, 2017 - 2:02 pm

Kim Klement/USA Today Sports

Over the years the Patriots have been masters of overcoming injuries and inserting new, inexperienced players into big roles and having them succeed.

Just look at how the first half of the season has gone without Julian Edelman. It hasn’t been perfect, but Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola and Co. have filled in nicely to make it not be a case where it derails the season. Last year the Patriots were able to adjust and win the Super Bowl without Rob Gronkowski.

As good as the Patriots are with this kind of stuff, overcoming the loss of Dont’a Hightower may be too much to overcome. (It’s being reported the linebacker is out for the season with a torn pec.)

The word overcome in New England is different than with most teams, as the Patriots will still be able to make the postseason, but their chances of reaching the Super Bowl took a big hit this week.

Hightower is arguably the most important player on defense. He’s shifted positions this season lining up as more of an edge rusher in addition to playing some snaps in his normal middle linebacker spot. With the departure of Chris Long, Rob Ninkovich and Kony Ealy along with the season-ending injury to rookie Derek Rivers, Hightower was more needed on the edge so that’s what he did to start the season. Then, after a few games it was realized he was missed in the middle of the defense so in the last few weeks he’s started to do both. His versatility along with skill make him nearly impossible to replace.

How valuable has Hightower been when on the field this year? According to NFL Network research, the Patriots have played 228 defensive snaps with him on the field and 226 without. They have given up 307 more yards with him off the field.

His impact goes well beyond the games as well. He’s the leader of the defensive unit and the player other players look to the most. He’s not afraid to speak when the defense isn’t playing to its potential, which was on full display following the 33-30 loss to the Panthers in Week 4. On a short week, Hightower along with Devin McCourty rallied the defense in just a few days and the unit came through with its best performance of the season in the 19-14 win, which started the recent upward trend.

“I thought that High and [Devin] McCourty really gave us some great leadership defensively and our preparation and having the right attitude to go down and play in the game and what we needed to do,” Bill Belichick said, going out of his way on a conference call the morning after the Tampa Bay game. “It was a short week. I thought they really stepped up from a leadership standpoint in that group and did a great job for us. It’s always good to see. I just wanted to recognize it because I think sometimes you just see it play out on the field. Obviously, they’re very, very important but there’s a lot of things that go into how it all comes together and I thought those two players defensively did a real good job for us this week.”

Hightower was injured during Week 1 and missed the next two games, before returning on a limited basis in Week 4. Over the first four games the Patriots allowed an average of 32 points per game, but they’ve allowed just 12.7 points per game during their three-game winning streak since. Hightower being back has been a major reason why.

There just isn’t much depth behind Hightower.

In the middle, Elandon Roberts is solid against the run, but is still developing in pass coverage. David Harris has barely played to this point likely because of his lack of speed, as he already was just primarily a run-stopper. On the edge, besides Trey Flowers there really isn’t much. Rookie Deatrich Wise is improving, but Cassius Marsh is still working to learn the system and Marquis Flowers hasn’t shown he’s much more than a special teams player.

The Patriots will get Shea McClellin back off injured reserve likely in Denver on Nov. 12, but he can only help so much. Of course the trade deadline is next Tuesday and the Patriots will certainly be active, but they will not be able to acquire a player who can come even close to replacing Hightower.

Hightower is so good that he impacts the depth at two positions and that isn’t even taking into account his impact as a leader.

The Patriots already lost their second-most important player on the team in Edelman during the preseason and now have lost their fourth-most important player in Hightower just before the midway point of the season.

With how mediocre the league is this year there is a chance the Patriots could still reach the Super Bowl, but even with how good Belichick is at making something out of nothing, it just seems the latest Hightower injury is the one that broke the camels back.

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