FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots learned Thursday they would be without star linebacker Dont’a Hightower for the rest of the 2017 NFL season — a massive hit to a team that has its sights set on a second consecutive Super Bowl title.
Hightower tore his pectoral muscle during Sunday’s win over the Atlanta Falcons, according to multiple reports. After Thursday’s practice, several Patriots players offered their initial thoughts on the loss of one of New England’s top defenders.
“That’s terrible news for a guy like Hightower to go down with that injury and to be out for the year (with) what he means to this defense,” linebacker David Harris said. “He’s one of the captains on the team. He knows the defense like the back of his hand, and to lose a guy like that is a huge blow for the team.
“But as a linebacker group, we’re here to step up and try to fill his place, which is going to be tough to do.”
Harris, Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, Marquis Flowers and Trevor Reilly all are part of that group, and Shea McClellin will rejoin it once he is removed from injured reserve, which could be as soon as next week. Harris, who has played just 26 defensive snaps all season, could see his role grow considerably with Hightower sidelined.
“It’s going to take a full unit (to replace Hightower),” said Van Noy, who has played 95.3 percent of defensive snaps this season. “Dont’a is a special player, and he does a lot for this team. It’s going to take a group effort.”
Hightower’s absence also will be felt on the edge, where the Patriots lack depth. Though Hightower was a second-team All-Pro at linebacker in 2016, 71.4 percent of his snaps this season came as an edge defender, according to Pro Football Focus.
Defensive ends Cassius Marsh and Adam Butler should see increased playing time moving forward, and New England could look to acquire reinforcements ahead of Tuesday’s NFL trade deadline.
“With anybody on the team, it’s like, man, you never want those things to happen,” Roberts said. “But Dont’a — that’s my guy. But now we just have to go out there, keep doing what we’re doing week to week, and I know for a fact that Dont’a would want to see that. We’ve just got to keep going. Stay positive for Dont’a. Keep doing what was getting done when he was out there.”
Hightower missed Weeks 2 and 3 with a knee injury but played in New England’s last four games. He is the latest in a long line of Patriots players who have suffered serious injuries this season, joining Julian Edelman, Cyrus Jones, Derek Rivers, Antonio Garcia, Malcolm Mitchell, Vincent Valentine and McClellin.
“He’s a huge part of what we do,” safety Devin McCourty said. “We’ve been out there for a few games without him, so we know what that’s like. But it’s always the same thing when a guy like that goes down. A bunch of guys have to step up and kind of try to fill that role — and in this case, a bunch of different roles. It’s a tough loss for us defensively, but it’s something we’ll have to overcome.”
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