The Patriots defense has had a hot start to training camp and it's not hard to see why. With numerous additions, from returning players to new free agents and rookies, perhaps no two players sum up the revamped D and their potential better than Dont'a Hightower and Adrian Phillips.
"I think we have the right pieces," said Hightower after the team concluded their in-stadium walkthrough. "The pieces have been set up for us and it's up to us to go out, execute and build the chemistry. I'm excited to be back playing with the guys I've been playing with. The linebacker group has a lot of energy and chemistry."
While Hightower opted out of 2020, Phillips joined the team as a free agent and immediately took grasp of the system, leading the team in tackles while playing all 16 games. With Hightower looking sharp and refreshed and Phillips looking even more fluid, while also adding to his mentorship duties, both figure to play major roles in 2021.
After getting his first taste of what it's like with fans in Gillette Stadium for the first time, Phillips was excited to see what it was like when the building is packed.
"It was great to have fans today, I missed that my first year due to Covid and everything like that," said Phillips."You can't really imitate or duplicate [the noise]. I know once this thing fills up it's gonna be electric. Now that I'm one of the good guys I can't wait to hear it."
Phillips has arguably been the team's best player in training camp, making multiple plays on the ball and generally making things difficult on a tight end group that has itself been largely remade in 2021. On a defense that values versatility, Phillips has been a perfect fit and looks poised to build on his 109 tackles, two interceptions and sack from 2020.
Hightower needs no re-introduction. His missing presence in 2020 was impossible to ignore as his leadership, physical presence and timely playmaking have been a key part of three Super Bowl championships.
After a year off, Hightower is ready to go.
"I'm just enjoying it again, it's kind of like a second chance," said Hightower.
David Andrews summed up Hightower's return even better.
"He's just Dont'a Hightower," said Andrews. "He's a great player, and a better teammate."
5 takeaways from in-stadium practice no. 9
- The Patriots welcomed season ticket holders and Foxborough residents for an in-stadium practice and while the fan energy was high, the practice was more of a walk-through of gameday operations...pregame warmups, personnel substitutions, communication etc. The level of competition was low after the ball was snapped but a reminder that there's a lot to get down before the first preseason game comes in less than a week. Expect Sunday's session to be fully padded as preparations ramp up for next Thursday's game against the Washington Football Team.
- As some of the low-level assistants donned referee jerseys and handled the pregame coin toss, Bill Belichick had a nice grin on his face. After having real referee's around for a few days last week, the coaches did an admirable job filling in.
- Impossible to read too much into it but Mac Jones had two nice throws up the seam to Jonnu Smith for "touchdowns". Again, walk-through pace, but Jones continues to look accurate. Kendrick Bourne's celebration with Smith after the first was a fun little moment in an otherwise tame practice session.
- Matthew Slater tried to ice rookie kicker Quinn Nordin with a timeout during the first half of the session but Nordin stayed on track throughout the night, going a perfect 10-for-10, including a final kick that looked to be about 55 yards, while also showing a strong kickoff leg. Nordin did all he could in the stadium on Friday night.
- It wasn't the live scrimmage some might've thought it would be but the players who spoke after practice expressed how great it was to have fans back in the stands and to feel that energy again. Stay tuned for next week, it should be a fun one.
Quotes of Note on fans returning to Gillette Stadium
"I think it's really exciting to have people back in the stands, to feel that energy, it's definitely one of the reasons I'm excited."
"It's an amazing feeling to be back, it just feels like football again. Just being able to have this energy and feel the energy from the fans, it's amazing."