Though team captain and Pro Bowl linebacker Dont'a Hightower technically remained on the Patriots active roster when Bill Belichick stepped to the mic for his Friday morning press conference in the media workroom at Gillette Stadium, the New England sideline boss acknowledged the loss of a major part of his team's defense.
"Obviously we're all disappointed for High," Belichick said. "He's one of the leaders on our defense and one of our captains. He gives us a lot. It's unfortunate, but it'll give somebody else opportunities. We'll see how that goes."
Hightower reportedly suffered a torn pectoral in the third quarter of Sunday's win over the Falcons. He reportedly already undergone surgery to repair the injury and is expected to return for 2018.
But as Belichick alluded to, and teammates spoke openly about Thursday afternoon in the Gillette Stadium locker room, New England is moving on without arguably its best defensive player and key leader.
No one player is likely to fill that void and Belichick used the word "opportunities" multiple times when discussing the immediate, post-Hightower future of his fledgling front seven.
"It'll create opportunities for other players. We'll see how it goes," Belichick said.
Unlike in the past when Belichick has alluded to the team being used to playing without oft-injured players, such as tight end Rob Gronkowski, the coach didn't support that line of thinking this time around. When a reporter noted that Hightower had already missed two games this fall and that could "expedite the process" of moving on from the linebacker who has now missed three or more games in four straight seasons, Belichick chose to focus on the task that his team faces against the Chargers on Sunday.
"We haven't played the Chargers, so each week is a different challenge," Belichick said. "This is a good football team. They create a lot of problems. They have a lot of good players, so we'll have to deal with the Chargers problems. I don't really care about somebody else. What difference does it make?"
Beyond Belichick's first comments on losing Hightower, here are the rest of the highlights of his Friday morning press conference.
1. Hogan kicking it up a notch: Wide receiver Chris Hogan saw extended action on special teams in last Sunday night's win over the Falcons, specifically in kickoff coverage.
While Belichick deflected a question wondering what led to Hogan's role in the kicking game against Atlanta – "We try to do what we feel like is best to help us win that game." – he did praise the receiver's willingness to step up when call upon.
"Chris works hard. Whatever you need him to do he's ready to jump in there and do it," Belichick said. "He did it last year in the Houston game on kickoff return."
A question about Hogan's toughness, including playing through a rib injury in recent weeks, drew the coach to positive comments for all his pass-catchers.
"Chris is a tough kid. I'd say all of our receivers are. It's a good group, a tough group, they block, they're tough, they're competitive," Belichick said.
2. Talking leadership:Not surprisingly after losing a key leader in Hightower, the topic of leadership has been much discussed by media and players in Foxborough over the last 24 hours. Friday morning a question regarding first-year captain Duron Harmon's leadership led Belichick into a long, general answer about the attribute that he apparently sees on varying levels from all of his players.
"Well every player on the team has leadership," Belichick began. "We're not talking about playing time here, although that's a factor. I'm not saying it's not a factor, but every player on the team comes to work every day and puts in their time in the meeting room, puts in their time in walkthroughs and the weight room, puts in their time on the field. That creates different levels of leadership, positive leadership. I think it's recognized by the players. I mean, we're not talking about a most valuable player. That's not what we're talking about here. Although, he's a valuable player for us – I'm not saying that, but like every player on the team has leadership. Everybody comes in every day with an opportunity to work hard and bring a positive attitude. Some guys excel at that. Some guys are good at it. Some guys excel and are outstanding. I think those players gain more respect from their teammates and oftentimes are recognized for it. There's no limit to working hard or being a team player or having a great attitude. There's no cap on that, so it's whatever any player wants it to be for himself. It's his choice.
Having lost Hightower and other key leaders to injury this season, a reporter wondered if Belichick expects some players to take on more of a leadership role moving forward.
"I don't think I'd use those words, but I think competitively as a team, compete. That's what I would expect us to do. That's what I think we will do," Belichick said.
3. Harris "as professional as anybody in that locker room":David Harris played a season-high 19 snaps last Sunday night, in part due to Hightower missing the last quarter-plus to his injury. After playing just seven snaps in the first six games, and being a healthy scratch three times, the former Jets tackle machine could be one of many players leaned on more heavily with Hightower out of the picture.
As such, Belichick was asked what he's seen from Harris after his extended playing time. The result was yet another highly praiseful response in a growing portfolio of them regarding the veteran linebacker and former division foe.
"David – you get about the same from him every week. He works hard. He's very professional. He's always engaged, always in tune with what you're doing," Belichick said. "He doesn't miss anything. You don't have to tell him the same thing multiple times. He hears it, tries to do it. I mean, he might make a mistake on it like we all do but then he corrects it and understands it, but he's a football guy. He's got a lot of experience, very into the game, understands situations, understands I'd say all of the things that we're doing or that we ask him to do. He's got a lot of experience. Again, he's as professional as anybody in that locker room."