How Patriots’ Defense Was Able To Overcome Loss Of Dont’a Hightower In Win

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FOXBORO, Mass. — Sometimes it gets boring and repetitive to discuss the New England Patriots’ next man up approach and mantra. It’s a cliche around these parts that when the Patriots lose a key player, someone will step up in his stead and the team will be no worse for wear.

It was the case again Sunday as the Patriots beat the Los Angeles Chargers 21-13 without Dont’a Hightower, who’s out for the season, at linebacker, Malcom Brown at defensive tackle and Stephon Gilmore at cornerback. It was, statistically, the Patriots’ defense’s second best performance of the season, trailing only Week 7’s 23-7 win over the Atlanta Falcons.

The Patriots’ defense let up just 349 yards of total offense to the Chargers and 192 yards through the air. They allowed an 87-yard touchdown run to Melvin Gordon, then limited Los Angeles’ running backs to 3.5 yards per carry. It wasn’t a flashy performance, but that always seems to be the case for the Patriots’ defense. They recorded just one sack and one turnover but still held the Chargers to two scores.

“We just wanted to come out here and play for (Hightower), you know? It’s always rough when you have a season-ending injury, and guys like Harvey Langi, we just want to show our support for them that we’re holding it down for them until they get back,” linebacker Kyle Van Noy said Sunday. “It was a group effort on defense, and we played well.”

Van Noy wore the Patriots’ communication device and led the charge with 51 defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. Elandon Roberts played 36 snaps, David Harris was on the field for 20, Marquis Flowers played eight and Trevor Reilly was in on two.

Van Noy, Roberts and Harris all made key impactful plays for the Patriots, too. Van Noy and Roberts both had tackles for loss, and Harris flashed as a pass rusher, forcing Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers to roll out, fumble and lose 20 yards on a team sack.

“They did well,” Patriots defensive captain Duron Harmon said about his linebackers. “I have all the confidence in those guys. Of course, none of those guys are Hightower, but they did a good job of just being consistent, playing good football, protecting the front seven, getting the guys up front in the right gap and stuff like that, just communicating. We know those guys can do it, and we just have to continue t0 do it each week.”

The Patriots’ linebackers proved they can carry the load and beat a good team without the team acquiring another player at the Halloween trade deadline. The Patriots also have linebacker Shea McClellin coming off of injured reserve before their next game. They could potentially use another pass rusher at the deadline, however. The Patriots struggled to pressure Rivers on third down.

“It wasn’t a perfect performance by any means but they all were involved in areas,” Bill Belichick said. “We’ll take a look at it and see how it goes and build forward with that.”

Rookie Adam Butler saw more action than usual as an interior defensive lineman with Brown out. Defensive tackle Alan Branch also took on a bigger workload despite appearing to suffer an injury in the first quarter.

Cornerback Johnson Bademosi stepped in for Gilmore for the third straight week. Bademosi allowed five catches on eight targets for 66 yards in the game. He drew two offensive pass interference penalties and an illegal touching flag. He also was flagged for defensive pass interference.

The Patriots have allowed 17 or fewer points in their last four weeks. They let up 128 points in their first four games and just 50 in their last four.

“It really comes down to consistency, us being on the same page all the time, not one guy’s playing one coverage and the other 10 guys playing another,” Harmon said. “It’s everybody on the same page, everybody communicating, everybody talking. Everybody’s playing with energy, playing fast and physical and tackling. That’s really been the changes and what’s helped us the last few weeks.”

The Patriots will have to hope their good fortune continues after their Week 9 bye.

Thumbnail photo via Stew Milne/USA TODAY Sports Images

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