PHOENIX -- When Jerod Mayo was lost for the season with a knee injury suffered in a Week 6 win at Buffalo, the defense figured to take a significant blow. With the leader and most experienced linebacker out of the lineup, a lot of pressure fell upon a pair of youngsters to fill the void.
Four months later the Patriots are in the Super Bowl and the Patriots aren't wondering how that void is going to get filled any longer.
Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower have been tremendous all season long, but particularly since their spiritual leader went down. Both have been effective in their roles within the defense but also in terms of controlling the huddle and setting the defense.
"I mean, it's changed a lot, and it's helpful," Collins said when asked how his role has changed over the course of the season. "I never back down. I need it. It's just given me the opportunity to do more things. It just shows my talents. It shows what I can do. Like I said, I don't turn anything down."
Check out photos from Patriots Media Day at the US Airways Center in Phoenix, Arizona during on Tuesday, January 27, 2015.
Collins led the team with 109 tackles and added four sacks, seven quarterback hits, four forced fumbles, two interceptions and a pair of fumble recoveries. The diversity of that stat line is very much indicative of the variety of things Collins brings to the defense.
His rare package of athleticism, size and instincts makes him a threat to perform in multiple roles. He can serve as a traditional inside linebacker against the run, he has the range to drop into coverage and he can get after the passer. Few linebackers can do all three of those things as effectively as Collins, but Hightower can rival him. He finished second with 92 tackles and added six sacks and 12 quarterback hits to go along with a forced fumble.
"I mean it's been fun [working with Hightower]," Collins said. "It's been a success as you can see, so you know, we just need to keep that brotherhood going. I learned a lot from Hightower and Jerod Mayo. I try to use everything to my advantage."
Both will be key pieces of the puzzle if the patriots are to contain Marshawn Lynch, Russell Wilson and the rest of the Seahawks offense. Having interchangeable pieces in the middle of the defense allows the Patriots the opportunity to utilize their skills in different ways.
Linebackers coach Patrick Graham believes that's important because stopping such talented opponents is not a one-man job.
"You have to understand with Seattle is if you go in there and try to defend Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch with this guy, or these two guys, that's when you're going to get into trouble," Graham said. "You have to defend the field, because it's [Jermaine] Kearse, it's [Doug] Baldwin it's so many different guys because you don't know how they're going to deploy those guys. We have to defend the field the best we can and everybody has to do that."
"The beautiful thing is they've been playing together for two years now. Those two working together has allowed them to grow together and you're starting to see the fruits of that. As a defense you're trying to keep your guys in positions to make plays and those guys have done a great job of doing that."
For Hightower, the idea of containing Lynch in particular is at the top of his list.
"His style of running is definitely different," Hightower said. "He has great feet. He has great vision. He's got great balance. He's got everything you want in a running back. He's got great hands out of the backfield. He's a workhorse and does whatever they need him to do, whether it's stepping in for protection to make a block or turning a five-yard run into a 60-yard run, he does a great job of just of expanding the play, not always looking to run somebody over, but looking to make that extra step to make that big play."
"He does a really great job with yards after contact, out of the backfield. I feel like he does everything that we expect him to do."
How Hightower and Collins fare in their roles will largely determine the overall success of the Patriots defense come Sunday.