The New England Patriots defense faced a tough challenge against the Los Angeles Chargers yesterday not just because of the team's talented offensive weaponry: The unit had to play without linebacker and defensive signal caller Dont'a Hightower, who is expected to miss the remainder of the 2017 season due to a pectoral injury that he suffered a week ago versus the Atlanta Falcons.
Judged simply by the stat sheet, the Patriots did a fine job of filling the hole left by Hightower's injury. The defense gave up a mere 13 points and held the Chargers to 349 yards of offense. And while not all was perfect – Melvin Gordon's 83-yard scoring run comes to mind – New England's defense was able to deliver another solid performance that becomes even more impressive when considering they did it without its leader.
So, how did they do it? By using a group effort, just like the Patriots' players predicted in the aftermath of Hightower's injury. Consequently, all five of the healthy linebackers on the roster were declared active for yesterday's game and all five saw defensive playing time – with Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts and David Harris as the three main players used at the linebacker positions.
Van Noy, who as expected took over communication duties from Hightower, led the group with 56 of a possible 56 defensive snaps. While this volume is nothing extraordinary for Van Noy – he has been on the field for 506 of 528 defensive snaps this season (95.8%) –, his usage differed from weeks past: Van Noy saw a season-high 37 snaps on the edge as he effectively took over as the hybrid linebacker/edge.
Prior to yesterday's game and when Hightower was still available, Van Noy played not even a third of his snaps in that role. Instead, he was mostly used as a typical off-the-line defender in the middle of the field. Against the Chargers, however, his edge percentage jumped to 66.1%, per Pro Football Focus. Van Noy fared well with his new responsibilities and finished tied for the team-lead with six tackles (one of which for loss).
The 26-year old playing a slightly altered role was not the only way of replacing Hightower. After all, somebody had to fill Van Noy's spot in the middle of the field. On most snaps, that somebody was Elandon Roberts: The second-year player was on the field for 40 snaps (71.4%) and was used in both two- and three-linebacker sets as the complement to Van Noy.
In his first game back from a one-week injury absence, Roberts delivered a strong performance and was especially effective as a run blitzer. Overall, the 23-year old finished with six tackles playing on the second level in New England's 5-1 and 5-2 fronts. Until Shea McClellin, recently on injured reserve but projected to return after the bye week, is fully reintegrated into the defense – and possibly beyond – Van Noy and Roberts appear to be New England's one-two punch at linebacker.
The next player down the line yesterday was veteran David Harris, who played not only his most active game of the season (21 snaps; 37.5%) but also his best. The veteran was predominately – like Roberts – used as an off-the-line defender in the middle of the Patriots' 5-1 and 5-2 packages. Harris, who also played two special teams snaps, looked comfortable in this role and displayed good play recognition and power when attacking the offensive line.
While Van Noy, Roberts and Harris played the bulk of New England's linebacker snaps, and likely will moving forward, Marquis Flowers and Trevor Reilly also saw some playing time. Flowers played eight defensive snaps, while Reilly was on the field for three – both also saw extensive time in the kicking game. In short, it was a team effort to replace Dont'a Hightower; an effort head coach Bill Belichick was apparently happy with.
“I think all of those guys contributed,” Belichick said after the game. “They were all involved in different groups so Marquis [Flowers], Kyle [Van Noy], Elandon [Roberts], David [Harris] and Trevor [Reilly]. They all played different roles defensively. [I]t wasn’t a perfect performance by any means but they all were involved in areas.” And with Hightower out, this is what the Patriots defense needs from its linebackers.