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Super Bowl 2017: Explaining how and why the Patriots are rotating linebackers

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The Patriots don’t have an ironman linebacker. Why?

The New England Patriots traded LB Jamie Collins to the Cleveland Browns in exchange for a 2017 draft pick, leaving a Second Team All Pro-sized hole in the defense. LB Dont’a Hightower held down one of the two linebacker positions in the Patriots 4-2-5 defense, but the other was open for whichever linebacker could step up and win the job.

Rookie LB Elandon Roberts received first crack at the job, but came up short with a poor outing against the Seattle Seahawks in week 10. Since that game, the Patriots have featured a heavy rotation at linebacker- and a series of knee and shoulder injuries to Hightower has opened up both starting jobs for substitution.

Opponent Defense Hightower Van Noy McClellin Roberts
Week 11 49ers 63 49 29 36 12
Week 12 Jets 57 57 28 31 4
Week 13 Rams 51 32 40 38 0
Week 14 Ravens 70 70 37 33 1
Week 15 Broncos 62 42 51 20 11
Week 16 Jets 56 0 45 35 28
Week 17 Dolphins 59 41 19 29 29
Divisional Texans 69 69 32 7 36
AFCCG Steelers 69 36 41 43 22

But instead of causing a defensive collapse, the rotation has been working, with each player holding down a specific role.

“I think we have a solid good group,” LB Kyle Van Noy told Pats Pulpit. “And everyone can contribute to the game. Why keep them on the bench when you can rotate and keep bodies fresh? And it’s worked; we’re playing well as a group, our communication is on point, and we just got to continue that.”

Elandon Roberts

Role: Run stuffer + energy

“Elandon coming in,” Hightower said before breaking into a laugh, “he was overly aggressive, so a lot of things didn’t stick too soon, but he’s always asking questions, he’s always learning, real smart dude, he’s just hitting people too hard. He just loves to hit.”

Roberts is a huge thumper of a linebacker that crashes the line of scrimmage, knocks the opposing lineman off their block, disrupts the play, and allows a teammate to make the final tackle. Roberts’ splash plays energize the defense and brings a necessary excitement to the group.

“Honestly, man, we all can play, and we all can be put on the field, so when we go out there, we’re just doing our jobs,” Roberts told Pats Pulpit. “We don’t really care who goes first, nothing like that; it’s whatever the team needs, you know this is a team first organization, so whatever the team needs we’ll do.”

With Roberts serving as an extra linebacker against the run, the Patriots have been able to stifle some of the most potent rushing attacks in the league.

Kyle Van Noy

Role: Pass defense specialist + energy

Van Noy was a renowned draft prospect for his ability to make plays close to the line of scrimmage. He was a dominant pass rusher with the ability to make tackles against the run in the backfield. He was drafted by the Detroit Lions where he was, uh, let’s have Van Noy explain:

“I had a hard two and a half years of playing football in Detroit and I needed to just love the game again and just go have fun,” Van Noy said about joining the Patriots. “I don’t know what role I had there [Detroit], honestly. It seemed like it changed weekly, yeah, it was just different.”

Van Noy was asked to cover in the slot at times and his skills were grossly misused. He is still helping with the Patriots coverage, but he’s covering running backs instead of dropping into zone against wide receivers.

“Kyle is a very versatile guy,” Patriots RB James White said. “He can cover, he can hit, he can do a lot of different things.”

Van Noy also brings a similar spark to the Patriots defense, as he admits he wants to be considered a “game-changer.”

Shea McClellin

Role: Jackknife

Van Noy said that McClellin had the “same skill set” as Hightower. Hightower praised McClellin for his intelligence and ability to develop as a “stand-up, inside, outside linebacker” after playing “a little d-end” in Chicago.

While Van Noy specializes against the pass and Roberts stands out against the run, McClellin fills in wherever necessary. Is Hightower out for the game? McClellin can step up. Need a capable run stuffer to play next to Van Noy? McClellin is your guy. Need a good coverage linebacker to line up with Roberts? Call McClellin.

McClellin has earned a super-sub role for the Patriots, allowing Hightower to take a breather every few drives, but also contributes to the starting defense. As far as McClellin is concerned, the rotation is important to get all of the players experience in the defense.

"I think it's a little bit of everything.,” McClellin said about the rotation. “Giving the younger guy reps. Give the guys who don't have as many reps [more] reps just to get that experience because you can't get better if you're not playing. [Rotate] just to get out there and experience that and work on your craft to get better."

Whatever the Patriots need McClellin to do, he’ll do at a pretty good level without many mistakes.

Dont’a Hightower

Role: Squad leader

Hightower is a Second Team All Pro linebacker. He’s the only linebacker with more than one year of experience on the team. He is the godfather of the positional group, holding the respect of every player that crosses his path.

“You know Hightower, he gives us great leadership,” Roberts said. “That guy is a great guy on and off the field, if you have any questions, any concerns and you want to stay after to talks after practice, watch film, staying late hours, Hightower will definitely stay with you- that’s just the type of person he is. He brings excitement to the game, just being out there with him, man, it’s easy to talk to him. Very comfortable guy.”

“I think everybody in that room has such respect for him,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said, “and everyone on our team does, but it’s not just because of what he does on the football field, I think he’s put his arm around a lot of those young guys, made them feel welcome, made them feel like a part of the group, like they all have something to contribute to the group. And he’s been a great encourager to those young guys, so his result has enabled him to lead in his own way and helped all of those guys elevate their play.”

“Honestly I’m just somebody there for if they’ve got a question, I’m just here to answer,” Hightower said.

Hightower is one of the best blitzing linebackers in the NFL (take note: Falcons C Alex Mack is dealing with a serious leg injury), dominant against the run, and capable in coverage. He is a first-year captain and the players love having him on the team.

“The thing that gets overshadowed in Dont’a’s game is his understanding of the game,” Slated added. “He has a tremendous understanding of the game and I think intellectually, he’s challenged the group in regards to xs and os, his leadership on the team has been huge for us. He’s so vocal, he’s great at getting guys on line, making checks, et cetera, it’s just a fresh perspective, a perspective we haven’t had in those captains meetings with Dont’a and what he’s experienced over the course of his career.”

Hightower played through Super Bowl XLIX with a shoulder injury that required surgery, and he’ll likely be playing through another Super Bowl with a serious injury. If Hightower can lead this motley crew of linebackers to a second Super Bowl in three seasons and receive a contract extension, he’ll ascend to the pantheon of Patriots defenders reserved for the likes of Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Vince Wilfork, and Rodney Harrison.

“We’re really fortunate to have him in there,” Slater added. “I think he’s done a good job of stepping up and leading and becoming more vocal, and hopefully the Patriots will be fortunate to have him for years to come.”

As for Hightower, he’s living in the moment and loving the opportunity to play alongside such a “smart” group of players. With a big smile on his face, Hightower simply said, “It’s just been a great, great, great year.”