Linebacker Dont’a Hightower didn’t practice with the New England Patriots on Wednesday, increasing the possibility he won’t play Sunday in Week 2 against the New Orleans Saints.
Hightower reportedly suffered a minor MCL sprain in Week 1 against the Kansas City Chiefs when he was rolled up from behind by multiple players. It’s likely, regardless of whether he practices this week, that he’ll be listed as questionable for Sunday’s matchup with the Saints. His status likely will be up in the air all week.
When Hightower left Thursday night’s loss to the Chiefs, new addition Cassius Marsh filled in as a pass rusher/outside linebacker in his stead. Chiefs rookie running back Kareem Hunt then beat Marsh on a 78-yard touchdown reception moments later.
It seems unlikely Marsh will start his second game in a Patriots uniform after missing all of training camp and preseason with the team. Marsh more likely seems destined for special teams play and a reserve role on defense.
So, who takes Hightower’s place? It’s a complex question, because it seems doubtful the Patriots’ other starting outside linebacker from Week 1, safety Jordan Richards (not a typo), will be in the same spot Week 2.
We’ll likely see Kyle Van Noy, who started Week 1 at inside linebacker, shift over to Richards’ spot at outside linebacker. David Harris or Elandon Roberts, both of whom barely played against the Chiefs, likely would play inside linebacker.
It seems to make the most sense to have rookie Harvey Langi, who spent most of the summer on the Patriots’ first-team defense while Hightower was on the physically unable to perform list, start in place of the defensive captain. If it’s not Langi, then it would have to be Marsh.
The Patriots also could switch up their defensive front after playing with three down linemen and two outside linebackers in what could either be described as a 5-1-5 defense or a 3-3-5 alignment in Week 1. They could decide to play in more of a traditional four-man front against the Saints with either rookie defensive lineman Deatrich Wise or Adam Butler playing more heavily on first down at defensive end. A more traditional defensive end role might fit Marsh’s skillset better.
If the Patriots want to sell out to defend the run, they also could play Malcom Brown, Alan Branch and Lawrence Guy, all of whom are 300-pound interior defensive linemen, at the same time next to right defensive end Trey Flowers.
Then the Patriots could pair Van Noy with either Harris, Roberts or Langi at linebacker. Harris and Roberts are the better run defenders, while Langi is better in coverage and as a pass rusher.
The Patriots’ defense struggled even with Hightower on the field Thursday night. They got worse with him off the field, and one would assume his absence Sunday would again have a trickle-down effect on the entire unit.
It still remains possible Hightower could play in Week 2, but the Patriots do have some options to fill in if he can’t go.
Thumbnail photo via Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports Images