The Patriots are coming off their best defensive performance of the season after trouncing Atlanta, 23-7. Unfortunately, the defense now will be forced to deal with life without arguably its best player as linebacker Dont'a Hightower is out with a torn pectoral muscle.
But as we've seen so often in the past when it comes to these Patriots, significant injuries don't necessarily mean the end of the season in New England. Replacing Hightower will by no means be easy but Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will find ways to scheme around his absence and try to patch things together.
The question is how? Elandon Roberts and David Harris will likely get some reps on the inside and fill the void in stopping the run while Kyle Van Noy and hopefully soon Shea McClellin will have more on their plates as well. How it all unfolds remains to be seen, but it will be an important element of the second half of the season.
This week's Samsonite Make Your Case question deals with Hightower's loss. Which member of the defense needs to elevate his role the most for the Patriots to succeed?
PFW's Andy Hart says ...
There's no replacing a player as talented and versatile as Dont'a Hightower on the field, but it may be more important for the Patriots to fill his void off it. Hightower is a strong leader and presence in the locker room. He's a respected player who is often credited with keeping the defense together, especially when times are tough.
I believe Devin McCourty will need to shoulder some of that burden in Hightower's absence. The safety does a great job keeping things together in the back end and he'll need to continue that as more pressure could now be felt in the secondary. McCourty also needs to step it up in terms of leadership throughout the defense in terms of communication and other areas where Hightower's presence was felt.
McCourty got off to a slow start this season but is obviously capable of playing at a high level. He's a veteran who's been around the longest and he needs to be the playmaker he's paid to be. He's been a solid captain in the secondary over the years and the Patriots need that presence now more than ever.
PFW's Paul Perillo SAYS ...
Dealing with the loss of a special player like Dont'a Hightower is never easy. He performed so many roles – stopping the run, dropping in coverage, rushing the passer – that it would be nearly impossible for one player to replace him. Perhaps Shea McClellin can come off IR soon and contribute in some of the ways Hightower has over the years, but that's asking a lot.
Instead, I think the more realistic scenario would involve the secondary stepping forward and dominating the way many felt would be the case before the season started. With Stephon Gilmore joining Malcolm Butler at corner, the Patriots figured to have two solid cover guys capable of containing opposing passing games. So far that hasn't been the case, and that needs to change.
Gilmore and Butler must establish some consistency and become the kind of stingy duo we felt they could be. Hightower's penchant for big plays at key times will be missed, but a pair of ball-hawking corners would be just what the doctor ordered.
Now it's your turn to cast a vote in this week's Samsonite Make Your Case poll question.