Posted on October 26, 2017, by Bryan Zarpentine
The reigning Super Bowl champion New England Patriots have lost one of their best defensive players for the rest of the 2017 season. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower has been ruled out for the remainder of the season with a torn pectoral muscle. There were already reports that Hightower would miss Sunday’s clash with the Chargers. However, news surfaced Thursday morning that the injury is worse than initially expected and will be season-ending.
Hightower suffered the injury while tackling running back Devonta Freeman during last week’s win over the Falcons. He managed to stay in the game for one play after suffering the injury. But soon removed himself and did not play the rest of the game.
Before the season, Hightower signed a four-year, $35.5 million contract to stay in New England long-term. However, injuries have plagued his 6th NFL season. First, Hightower suffered a knee injury in the season-opening loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. He missed two games and was only a part-time participant in his first game back.
It wasn’t until Week 5 that Hightower played a full game. His return to the lineup on a full-time basis coincided with New England’s defense starting to turn things around after a dreadful start to the season. During the first four weeks of the season, the Patriots gave up an average of 32 points per game. But in the last three weeks, they are giving up less than 13 points per game.
It’s no coincidence that New England’s defense started playing better when Hightower started playing nearly every snap in Week 5. With the loss or Rob Ninkovich to retirement and injury to Hightower early in the year, New England’s linebackers were largely young and inexperienced in the system. With Hightower now out for the season, that remains a problem the Patriots will have to address.
“Honestly, it’s just building chemistry,” explained Kyle Van Noy, the lone stalwart remaining among New England’s linebackers. “A lot of people kind of lost sight that we have a bunch of new guys, and a lot of young guys as well.”
With Van Noy, the Patriots still have one reliable linebacker. However, they will have to find answers at the other two spots with Hightower unavailable. The list of candidates includes Elandon Roberts, David Harris, and Marquis Flowers. The Patriots will also look forward to the return of Shea McClellin from injured reserve after Week 8.
Harris is a veteran with a lot of NFL experience, while McClellin should improve the overall talent of that unit when he returns. But replacing Hightower’s leadership and versatility are going to be difficult. Hightower is a captain and a key commuicator on New England’s defense. Not just anyone can step in and replace those attributes. Short of convincing Ninkovich to come out of retirement, the Patriots will struggle to replace all that Hightower brings to the table.
Losing Hightower is by no means a deal-breaker in terms of the Patriots defending their title. But the defense clearly changed when he started playing full-time in Week 5. If the New England defense reverts to how it played early in the season, it could be a huge problem for the Patriots. They also won’t have Hightower around to be part of the solution.