It has not been the best of times for the New England Patriots defense in 2017. While more than formidable in 2016, they had become among this year’s NFL cellar-dwellers in allowing big plays, touchdowns and points. One could say that the Pats D had been through almost every imaginable low emotion.
That is…until now.
NFL Network Insider, Ian Rapoport, reported on Thursday that linebacker Dont’a Hightower has a torn pectoral muscle and will miss the remainder of the season, according to a source informed of the situation.
Losing Hightower for the duration of 2017 is a huge hit to the Patriots defense. The veteran was surely the biggest playmaker in the Pats front seven. However, his importance goes far beyond his on-field production. Hightower is the defensive leader and primary communicator on the field. In fact, some might call him the ‘defensive quarterback.’ When in the lineup, Hightower’s communication skills and knowledge of the defense were obviously evident. Other players and positions seemed to fall more neatly into place, and the stats show it.
After missing Weeks Two and Three to injury, Hightower returned to the lineup in Week Four. Since that time, the defense has shown marked signs of improvement. Over the past three games, the Patriots defense is now tied for 4th in the NFL in points allowed. They have increased their standing in every notable category, helping to distance themselves from their disastrous start to the 2017 season.
However, just as the Pats defense appeared to turn the corner, it has suffered a major setback.
With Hightower done for the year, linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts will be called upon to fill the void. Veteran David Harris, who has only played sparingly, should also see an increase in his early-down spans. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia may look to utilize defensive ends Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise, Jr. in pass rush situations more frequently, as well.
Although no one does the ‘next man up’ game quite like head coach Bill Belichick, the team could also look to upgrade the linebacking corps with a trade before Tuesday’s deadline, it is also possible that they will continue to search the free agent wire. Per Mike Giardi, of NBC Sports Boston, some familiar names that might fit via trade would be: Jon Casillas (NYG), Dekoda Watson (SF), Jon Bostic (Indianapolis), Brock Coyle (SF). Former Patriot Akeem Ayers (free agent), as well as the recently retired, Rob Ninkovoch will also be rumored in the coming days.
For Hightower, it puts a premature end to a season in which he had finally earned the right to take the reigns of the defense from start to finish. Hightower signed a four-year $35.5 million contract in March. Per Albert Breer of NFL Media and MMQB, Hightower’s pectoral muscle may have been a problem as far back as the offseason. In fact, it could have been a reason for some of the difficulty Hightower had in securing a maximum, and more lucrative contract. Per Albert Breer of MMQB, the pectoral issue is what caused teams to hesitate signing Hightower to a long-term deal. Breer, per his source, continued by indicating that the pec may have been partially torn by the time he took physicals in March. If that is the add, it should shed light on how the Patriots were able to sign a player of Hightower’s talent at what was considered, less-than market value.
In any case, the injury to Hightower is one more obstacle for the New England Patriots, in their pursuit of a sixth Super Bowl title. It will not be an easy one to overcome. However, just when you think the Pats are out, they pull themselves back in.
Can they do it again? The Patriots always accept their mission…and that mission starts Sunday afternoon against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Despite earlier speculation that he could possibly return this season, Hightower will, in fact, miss the remainder of 2017.
According to NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport, Hightower had surgery Thursday to repair his torn pec and it went well. The belief is he should have a full recovery for 2018.
#Patriots LB Dont’a Hightower had surgery today to repair his torn pec, source said. It went well. Should have a full recovery for 2018.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) October 26, 2017
ESPN’s Adam Schefter had reported earlier on Thursday (just after news of Hightower’s injury had been released) that the Patriots decision on Hightower’s status would be made, pending a consultation with Dr. James Andrews. Rapoport confirmed Hightower’s surgery just after 4:00pm Eastern time.
-Mike D’Abate is the Managing Editor for cover32.com/Chargers and covers the Los Angeles Chargers and New England Patriots. He is also a National Content Writer and covers the NFL for cover32.com.