FOXBORO, Mass. — With the number of injuries the New England Patriots have faced this season, news that linebacker Brandon Spikes had been placed on injured reserve was met with a collective “ho hum.”
But at a certain point, some aspect of the Patriots was going to be met with the figurative straw that breaks the camel’s back. That facet apparently will not be New England’s run defense.
Without Spikes — deservedly known as the Patriots’ best run defender — New England allowed 69 yards on 21 carries to the Indianapolis Colts in Saturday night’s AFC divisional-round playoff victory at Gillette Stadium. Running back Donald Brown had the most success, gaining 63 yards on 17 carries, and Trent Richardson had his typical game, which — unfortunately for the Colts — added up to 1 yard on three carries (needless to say, he hasn’t been worth the first-round draft pick the Colts gave the Cleveland Browns in exchange for the running back). Quarterback Andrew Luck ran only once for 5 yards.
So how were the Patriots able to accomplish that feat without their best run-stopping linebacker in the fold? Linebackers Dont’a Hightower and rookie Jamie Collins responded with their best games of the season.
Hightower and Collins did not have “quietly” good games, either. These were games filled with big plays. Hightower had eight tackles and an interception. Collins had six tackles, a sack, an interception and two quarterback hits. Both linebackers played especially strong near the line of scrimmage.
“Doesn’t matter, actually,” Hightower said about how the defense changed without Spikes. “Doesn’t matter. We miss him, we wish he was out there, but the guys that had to step up stepped up tonight — big time. Those guys stepped up. We did everything we needed to do tonight.”
It wasn’t a perfect performance by the defense — the Patriots probably would like to have some deep passing plays back — but a win is a win, especially in the playoffs. And to do it against the surging Colts was even more impressive.
Hightower said the Patriots have been focused on stopping the run. That has been obvious since Hightower started to play better, and mid-year signing defensive tackle Sealver Siliga was inserted in at nose tackle.
Hightower admitted Tuesday that his play dropped off after linebacker Jerod Mayo was lost for the season. He said he was trying to do too much. With Spikes out, there was a fear that would happen again, but Hightower said “never again.”
“Nah. Definitely not,” Hightower said. “Just learning from my mistakes. Just knowing what happened the first time, don’t want to let that happen again. Just knowing what happened from the first time from doing different things. And knowing how to get over it now. Talking to some of the older guys when things happen. [Steve Gregory], Devin McCourty, all those guys. I definitely don’t see that as being a problem ever coming up again.”
It seemed Collins was teetering on a game like this all the season. He came close to picking off passes and was inching closer and closer to getting a sack, but for 17 weeks, those big plays never came. It took the rookie playing on the biggest stage for his best game of the season.
“I don’t know why y’all are so surprised he plays like that,” Hightower said about his teammate. “You can look at him and tell that he’s a very gifted athlete, tremendous guy. He makes plays like that all the time. He played a helluva game, and nobody around here is surprised.”
The key for Hightower, Collins and Dane Fletcher, who stepped in as a starter for Spikes, is to play their own game, Hightower stressed. They can’t try to be anything they’re not. Otherwise, the same thing that happened to Hightower when Mayo went out might creep up again.
“Everybody plays their game,” Hightower said. “Nobody needs to step up, nobody needs to do anything different. Everybody just plays their game the way it’s done, just like we did tonight. Nobody needs to do anything extra. Nobody needs to be Jerod or be Brandon or be Vince. Everybody just go out and play their game.”
That’s been the Patriots’ mentality all season. And they’re only one step away from a Super Bowl, so it must be working.