UPDATE (8:45 a.m. ET): It appears the New England Patriots will have to get used to life without Dont’a Hightower.
Hightower reportedly tore his pectoral muscle in last Sunday’s win over the Atlanta Falcons and is expected to miss the rest of the season, per NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport.
ORIGINAL STORY: Since the 2017 regular season began, the New England Patriots have avoided the season-ending injuries plaguing superstars around the NFL. Knock on wood and all of that. But it has been a half-season of nagging, annoying ailments in New England.
The latest two key contributors to suffer injuries are linebacker Dont’a Hightower (shoulder) and defensive tackle Malcom Brown (ankle). Neither player finished Sunday night’s win over the Atlanta Falcons and neither player practiced Wednesday.
Hightower won’t play Sunday when the Los Angeles Chargers come to town, the Boston Herald’s Jeff Howe reported Wednesday. It’s not a good sign that Brown missed Wednesday’s practice, though he could still return to the field Thursday or Friday afternoon.
So, how will Hightower and Brown be replaced? Let’s tackle Hightower first.
It’s unlikely just one player will step up in place of the star linebacker. If Elandon Roberts, who missed Week 7 with an ankle injury and was limited in practice Wednesday, can go, then he’ll likely be counted on the most in Hightower’s absence. Hightower has been moved from playing edge defender back to linebacker, which is Roberts’ primary position. Roberts and Kyle Van Noy would serve as the Patriots’ starting linebackers in their base nickel defense.
Roberts won’t be alone in replacing Hightower. Defensive lineman Adam Butler and hybrid edge defender Cassius Marsh also likely will have to step up to fill Hightower’s third-down pass-rushing role.
If Roberts can’t play, then veteran linebacker David Harris would take on a bigger workload for the second straight week. It’s not a coincidence that Harris played a season-high 19 snaps in Week 7 when Hightower suffered the shoulder injury.
It’s possible linebacker Marquis Flowers and safety Jordan Richards could see snaps on defense in Hightower’s absence.
New England might have to make a roster decision if Brown can’t play. The Patriots would be left with just two traditional 300-pound defensive tackles in Lawrence Guy and Alan Branch. Their reserve defensive tackle would be Butler, who weighs just 280 pounds.
The team signed defensive tackle Mike Purcell to its practice squad Wednesday. Purcell has played 25 games in three seasons, drawing eight starts. He has 42 career tackles and one sack. Purcell could serve as a backup/emergency fill-in if Brown can’t play.
The Patriots would significantly miss Hightower and Brown against the run; they’re holding opponents to .58 fewer yards per carry with Brown on the field and .33 fewer yards per rush with Hightower in the lineup.
Fortunately for New England, the Chargers pass on 62.7 percent of offensive plays, the eighth highest percentage in the NFL. Chargers starting running back Melvin Gordon is averaging just 3.4 yards per carry.
The Patriots also would miss Hightower against the pass, though. They’re allowing one fewer yard per pass on average without Hightower on the field. The Chargers rank eighth in the NFL in passing offense.
New England’s defense finally began to show its full potential Sunday night against the Falcons. It might not look quite as strong until Hightower and Brown are back at full strength.
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