Dont’a Hightower, LeGarrette Blount String Together Impressive Performances and Other Patriots Thoughts

Dont'a HightowerThe NFL season is long for every team, but for many players on the New England Patriots, this year must feel like a marathon.

The Patriots have 13 rookies on their active roster and another six on the practice squad. Those 19 players are used to playing a 12-, maybe 13- or 14-game schedule. New England is finally playing their 16th game this season and they have the entire postseason in front of them.

Rookie defensive tackle Chris Jones must be especially winded at this point in the year. At over 300 pounds, Jones plays nearly every snap on defense for the Patriots. He wasn’t even used to playing this often in college at Bowling Green.

Veterans like defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones can’t be feeling 100 percent either. Ninkovich and Jones lead 4-3 defensive ends in snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

With so many rookies on the team, and veterans who are asked to play the majority of defensive snaps, New England could surely use the bye next weekend. That’s what the Patriots are playing for this week. And if they win, they’re onto the second round.

Let’s take a look back to last week to see how the Patriots may fare against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.

1. Duron Harmon brings a physical presence to free safety.

Rookie safety Duron Harmon can’t be Devin McCourty at free safety, but the rookie brings his own strengths to the position. Harmon has made some big hits this season that have broken up passes. At 6-foot, 205 pounds, Harmon is a bigger presence at the position than McCourty.

Harmon doesn’t have the same range as McCourty, but the rookie played very well in the second half after the starter left Sunday’s game against the Baltimore Ravens with a concussion.

2. Dont’a Hightower strings together another impressive performance.

It will take a while for Patriots fans to let go of the grudge they hold against linebacker Dont’a Hightower for some up-and-down play midway through the season, but smart supporters should be doing a 180 after the second-year player’s last few games. Since defensive tackle Sealver Siliga got inserted into the middle of New England’s defense, Hightower has played much better.

It’s no surprise that Hightower has had more room to roam with a true nose tackle in front of him.

3. LeGarrette Blount continues to run hard.

Stevan Ridley, and Bill Belichick‘s trust in the oft-fumbling running back, was the story of the Patriots’ final offensive drive on Sunday as the Patriots ate up clock. But running back LeGarrette Blount was the better overall player against the Ravens. There is a reason Blount keeps starting: He’s playing very well.

4. Kenbrell Thompkins could play this weekend. Or not.

All signs point to rookie wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins suiting up on Sunday after the Patriots released Austin Collie, but it’s never smart to assume when Belichick is making decisions. It would seem a little crazy to go into Sunday with just Julian EdelmanDanny AmendolaAaron Dobson and Matthew Slater at wide receiver, but some mind games would be nothing new for New England’s head coach.

5. Brandon Spikes could use a bye.

Linebacker Brandon Spikes hasn’t made much of an impact lately, though the Patriots’ run defense is still playing better when he’s clogging rushing lanes. It appears Spikes’ knee is really bothering him. A week off could go a long way.

6. Josh Kline doesn’t play like an undrafted rookie.

The Patriots always seem to find unheralded and unspectacular interior offensive lineman (outside of Logan Mankins, of course). Undrafted rookie guard Josh Kline fits the bill. He’s played well in his five quarters as a starter on the offensive line, though it has not been perfect.

7. Logan Mankins could have played left tackle in the NFL.

Logan Mankins‘ second-career start at left tackle could have gone in a number of different ways. It turned out positive. Mankins gave up a sack to Terrell Suggs, but he was nearly invisible for the rest of the game, which is good for any offensive lineman. Mankins has not looked out of place since usual left tackle Nate Solder went down with his second concussion in as many weeks.

8. Chandler Jones could use a rest.

Chandler Jones can be a bit inconsistent at times, but he has an excuse: He’s playing a ton of snaps at right defensive end. He’s still piling up a decent number of pressures, but his pass rush stats don’t look quite as good on a per-snap basis. They may, though, if he wasn’t being asked to play every snap. Jones has the 11th most defensive snaps in the entire league.

9. Tavon Wilson set to take on a bigger role.

Second-year safety Tavon Wilson got snaps as the “money” defensive back in the Patriots’ dime alignment on Sunday. He will likely be asked to play the same role on Sunday.

Wilson made the most of his limited opportunities against the Ravens. Another pick six would go a long way against Buffalo.

10. Steve Beauharnais and Chris White get a snap.

Linebackers Steve Beauharnais and Chris White got their first defensive snap of the season against the Ravens. It was Beauharnais’ first-career defensive snap. White had previously played eight snaps last season on defense with the Bills.

11. Marquice Cole and Austin Collie’s cuts will likely open the door for some practice squad players.

If I had to take a guess, I would say safety Kanorris Davis and linebacker Ja’Gared Davis will come off the practice squad to take the two roster spots opened by cornerback Marquice Cole and Collie’s cuts. Kanorris Davis could fill in for Cole at gunner while providing depth at safety. Ja’Gared Davis could act as a special teamer/reserve linebacker for Dane Fletcher if the veteran linebacker’s groin is still bothering him.

Have a question for Doug Kyed? Send it to him via Twitter at @DougKyedNESN or send it here.

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