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Random Thoughts: Hightower turns the tide

It wasn't always pretty but the atmosphere was raucous in the Patriots 35-17 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in the Tom Brady's 2016 homecoming.

New England improved to 5-1 on the season and remains on top in the AFC East. Here are some random thoughts from the win.

High point – The Patriots got contributions from a number of players but perhaps the most important was Dont'a Hightower. The linebacker was thrust into an integral role with Jamie Collins (hip) inactive and he dominated. Hightower finished with 13 tackles and 1.5 sacks but that doesn't even tell the full story. Several of his plays came at key times and turned the tenor of the game. Never was that more evident than midway through the third quarter when the Bengals led 14-10. Hightower came up the middle on a blitz and nailed Andy Dalton in the end zone for a safety that completely turned the game around. That wasn't his only significant play, however. Hightower also came up with a huge stop on Gio Bernard on fourth-and-goal from the 1 in the second quarter to keep Cincinnati off the board, and later made a terrific play chasing Bernard down from the backside. He ultimately ended the proceedings when he and Jabaal Sheard combined for a sack to close it out.

Scrambling drill – The defense was forced to adjust on the fly in the first half when rookie Elandon Roberts was knocked out of the game for a stretch. With Roberts out the defense featured Rob Ninkovich as an inside linebacker with Hightower while Barkevious Mingo was forced into action in sub packages. Mingo struggled in coverage against Bernard, biting on a double move for a 32-yard gain on third down. Some of those alignments also featured the "Heavy D" package from previous weeks with Alan Branch, Malcom Brown and Woodrow Hamilton on the field together.

The New England Patriots take on the Cincinnati Bengals in a regular season game at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, October 16, 2016.

Left, right, left – The defense also had a different look in the secondary with Malcolm Butler playing on the right side and Logan Ryan sticking to the left. Both players stayed on their sides throughout the game, although the Patriots employed mostly zone coverages. It was interesting to see the corners not change sides even though they clearly were not matching up with specific receivers. Perhaps it was an indication that Butler is dealing with something from a physical standpoint and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia didn't want to expose him against the Bengals dangerous A.J. Green.  

Third down impact – Each team benefited from questionable penalties that negated third-down stops by the defense. The Bengals got the first break when Andy Dalton's pass on third-and-six was knocked down by Elandon Roberts. But Logan Ryan was called for illegal hands to the face trying to jam A.J. Green and the Bengals picked up the first down. Ryan's hands appeared to be just under Green's facemask but the flag came out anyway. The Patriots got the last laugh when it came up with a huge stop on fourth-and-goal from the 1, however. The Patriots took advantage of their break when the Bengals forced an incompletion on third-and-18 at the Patriots 17. But Bengals corner Dre' Kirkpatrick was called for illegal contact, which was extremely minor in nature and New England moved the chains. That drive ended with a touchdown pass to James White to give the Patriots the lead. Both calls were probably accurate by the letter of the law but neither needed to be made.

Conservative call – The Patriots scored with 1:01 left in the first half to take a 10-7 lead and they had an opportunity to get more but opted to play it close to the vest. An incomplete pass on first down left the Bengals with second-and-10 and 55 seconds left and a Bernard run resulted in no gain. But Bill Belichick opted not to use one of his three timeouts and by the time the Bengals third down pass fell incomplete there were just seven ticks left till intermission. A timeout would have forced Cincinnati to attempt to move the chains but instead their punt came on the final play of the half and the Patriots never got a chance to add to their lead.

Impact flags – The officials continued to make an impact on the game and arguably turned the tide for good in the third quarter. With Cincinnati leading 14-10 and in possession at their own 15, the Bengals faced a second-and-10. Dalton scrambled and hit Green on the sideline for a 15-yard gain that appeared to start the drive. But right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi was called for holding against Ninkovich, pushing the ball back to the 8. On the next snap Hightower broke through and sacked Dalton in the end zone for safety, making it 14-12. The Patriots then took advantage of the short field off the free kick and took the lead with a touchdown drive that made it 19-14. The Ogbuehi hold seemed to be questionable as Ninkovich was stumbling as he veered toward Dalton and ultimately went down with the Bengals tackle landing on top of him. The officials saw it differently and the Patriots seized control.

Nickel change – After using a lot of three safety looks in the first half and struggling, Belichick switched things up by using Eric Rowe as the third corner. Rowe lined up against Green occasionally, including a key third-and-two from inside the 10 when the Bengals were trying to get within striking distance. A touchdown would have made it 25-20 with the Bengals liking opting to go for two to potentially get within a field goal. Rowe was very competitive on Green's route to the corner and did enough to disrupt the play's timing and Dalton's pass fell incomplete.

Kicking things around – One of the few areas of concern for the team in recent weeks has been one of the Patriots most consistent players overall. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski hooked a PAT wide in the third quarter, snapping his streak of 478 consecutive makes in the regular season. Gostkowski has also missed three field goals this season, giving him four misses in just six games, which is usually a season's worth for the All-Pro. It will be interesting to see if Belichick decided to bring in a free agent kicker or two for a tryout to keep the team's information up to date in the even that Gostkowski's struggles continue.

Safety dance – Hightower's safety marked the second straight week the defense has put two points on the board. Last week Hightower forced Cleveland's Cody Kessler's pass to travel backward through the end zone for the safety.

Extra points –The Patriots won for the 23rd straight time against AFC teams outside of the division at Gillette Stadium. The last time the Patriots lost at home in that situation was 2008 against Pittsburgh. … Julian Edelman was back returning punts but seems to lack some of the explosiveness he normally displays. He turned in a 23-yarder late in the game after the outcome had been decided but otherwise seemed to stumble a bit on his cuts. It certainly looked like Edelman is still dealing with the effects of his foot injury. … Rob Gronkowski was once again immense, racking up a career high 162 yards receiving on seven catches. He also notched his first touchdown of the season. He also moved past Irving Fryar for fourth on the Patriots all-time receiving yards list with 5,837. … Tom Brady enjoyed another stellar afternoon as well, completing 29 of 35 for 376 and three touchdowns. He now has 5,010 career completions and is one of just four quarterbacks in NFL history with at least 5,000. … James White recorded the first two-touchdown reception of his career and finished with eight catches for 47 yards.

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