Yesterday, the New England Patriots received some devastating news: linebacker Dont'a Hightower suffered a pectoral injury and will miss the remainder of the season because of it. The 27-year old, who reportedly underwent surgery yesterday and is expected to recover fully by 2018, will be a big loss for a Patriots defense that is just coming off its best game of the season.
Naturally, replacing a player of Hightower's caliber – both on and off the field – will not be an easy task, and New England's defenders speaking to the media yesterday know this. “It’s going to take a full unit,” fellow linebacker Kyle Van Noy noted (via NESN.com). Van Noy, who has played 95% of the Patriots' defense snaps this season, is the leading candidate to take over communication duties from Hightower.
“Dont’a is a special player, and he does a lot for this team,” Van Noy continued. “It’s going to take a group effort.” Safety Devin McCourty echoed the thought that the Patriots' defense as a whole needs to step up its game in the wake of Hightower's injury: “It’s not just one guy or even like it’s not just Kyle Van Noy trying to fill Hightower’s [role]. It’s all the guys stepping up and preparing and playing a little bit better.”
McCourty, one of two defensive team captains remaining – the other being Duron Harmon –, also pointed out the urgency needed to replace the All Pro linebacker: “We can’t afford for it to take a while to find out who’s going to play good football. You know, we need to continue to get better, and that doesn’t change with anybody going out – myself, anyone. If they’re not there, someone else has to step up and play.”
The “somebody else” McCourty is talking about includes the aforementioned Van Noy as well as second-year player Elandon Roberts and veteran David Harris. “You know, E-Rob has been out there a good amount,” McCourty noted during his press conference yesterday. “I thought Dave got a lot of playing time last week, so he’s a veteran guy, so he’s always ready to go in there.”
The two players in question both spoke to reporters yesterday as well – and both noted how important Hightower is to the defense. “He’s one of the captains on the team,” David Harris said about the injury. “He knows the defense like the back of his hand, and to lose a guy like that is a huge blow for the team.” Harris, who joined the Patriots this offseason, also acknowledged that not one player but the entire defense now has to fill the huge void created by Hightower's absence.
“As a linebacker group, we’re here to step up and try to fill his place, which is going to be tough to do.” Roberts, who pointed out that the defense needs to stay positive for its captain, also spoke about the unit adjusting to the loss of one of its most talented and important members: “We just have to go out there, keep doing what we’re doing week to week, and I know for a fact that Dont’a would want to see that.”
Roberts and Harris were not the only defenders looking ahead instead of back, McCourty did as well. “When injuries happen, it gives a lot of guys opportunity to play now,” the 30-year old said about the situation New England faces now. “The thing that I think has been great about being in this building, a lot of guys have waited for opportunity and they work hard and they try to prepare themselves to be ready if anything happens.”
“So, very unfortunate for High, but some guys get opportunities to step up,” McCourty noted. Those guys better be read to wear a lot of hats: “[Hightower] plays different roles, he’s down in the front, he’s playing backer, he’s covering, he does a lot of different things. [...] It’s a tough loss for us defensively, but it’s something we’ll have to overcome.”
The Patriots have been the NFL's best team at doing this for the last decade-plus but replacing Hightower will certainly not be easy. Luckily for the team, it has only one game before its bye week – a lot of time to adjust and find a way to replace Hightower as well as possible.