Patriots

Hightower starts in return from knee injury, plays more than half Patriots snaps

Hightower starts in return from knee injury, plays more than half Patriots snaps

FOXBORO -- Dont'a Hightower hadn't played since the season-opener, but it looked like his conditioning level was just fine midway through the fourth quarter.

Coming in off the left edge, he beat his blocker and chased down Cam Newton to notch his first sack of the season. The play forced a Panthers punt and gave the Patriots possession with 7:27 left in the game. Down 30-23 at the time, Hightower's team had a chance to tie. Ten plays later, they did.  

PANTHERS 33, PATRIOTS 30

Though the Patriots couldn't hold off the Panthers late in the fourth quarter, Hightower's sack could be viewed as an encouraging sign for a defense that needs as many of those as it can get at the moment.

Hightower started and played 37 of 63 defensive snaps on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus, including one as an inside linebacker. For the most part, though, Hightower remained on the edge. That's the role he played exclusively in Week 1 against the Chiefs before suffering a knee injury that sidelined him for wins over New Orleans and Houston. Per PFF, he rushed the passer 16 times -- recording two hurries in addition to his sack -- and dropped into coverage six times.

Hightower missed much of training camp while on the physically unable to perform list, and then his injury against the Chiefs may have stunted any progress he was making with his conditioning. He may still need some time before he's feeling like he's at full strength, but playing more than half the snaps and coming up with a key play late isn't a bad place to build from.

Here's a look at some of the other banged-up Patriots and how they performed . . . 

Marcus Cannon, OT: Returning to his spot as the starting right tackle after dealing with an ankle injury and a concussion that kept him out against the Texans, Cannon played all 70 offensive snaps for the Patriots. He allowed a sack to Julius Peppers and gave up four more pressures in the game, according to Pro Football Focus. 

Eric Rowe, CB: Rowe sat out Week 3 with a groin injury. He said on Sunday that the injury felt 100 percent before the Panthers game, but on the first play of the third quarter he tweaked his groin making a tackle. He did not return and finished the game having played 19 snaps. Had Rowe remained healthy, it would have been interesting to see how the Patriots utilized Stephon Gilmore, as Gilmore sat out the first play of the third quarter with Rowe and Malcolm Butler on the field. Rowe's injury seemed to force Gilmore back into action. Gilmore has missed just 12 snaps on the season. He sat for 11 against the Texans as he dealt with dehydration.

Elandon Roberts, LB: The second-year linebacker started the game as an off-the-ball linebacker alongside Kyle Van Noy, making five tackles before leaving the game with an injured ankle. He did not return and finished having played 33 snaps. Roberts was spotted in the locker room after the game with a noticeable limp.  

Jacob Hollister, TE: The undrafted rookie played just three snaps offensively but was involved on special teams as well. He was a late addition to the injury report with a hamstring issue on Saturday. Before the game, he tested the injury with team medical personnel and coach Bill Belichick watching closely. He was held without a catch on one target. This was not a big tight end game for the Patriots as their No. 2, Dwayne Allen, played a season-low nine snaps.

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Gronkowski advises Hayward to treat rehab like anything else -- dominate

Gronkowski advises Hayward to treat rehab like anything else -- dominate

FOXBORO -- Rob Gronkowski's never suffered a break like the one Gordon Hayward did on Tuesday night, but he has been through enough to know what lies ahead as the Celtics forward stares at a lengthy recovery period.

"I saw it. I mean, I wish him nothing but wellness," Gronkowski said on Wednesday. "Hopefully he heals ASAP. You never want to see that with a player in any sport. When my friend showed me that last night, you get that feeling in your body, like, your heart drops. I wish him well.

"I can't wait to see him back. I know he's going to bounce back. Being here in Boston, he's going to be a hard worker it feels like. I can't wait to see him back."

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Multiple back surgeries, a plate in his arm, a surgically-repaired ACL . . . Gronkowski has put in his share of rehabilitation work. Asked if he'd give Hayward any advice as he embarks on his road back to normalcy, Gronkowski's message was simple.

"Just go into rehab just like you go into anything else. Dominate it," Gronkowski said. "Come back when you feel ready. Come back when you're 100 percent . . . He wouldn't be where he is now if he wasn't a hard worker. I don't know the guy. Never met him. But it's not something you want to see as an athlete happen to anyone else."

Gronkowski acknowledged that in his experience, one of the biggest hurdles following an injury like that is the mental one. You quickly go from being a powerful athlete to a patient in need of help with even the smallest of tasks. 

"There is a big mental challenge, definitely, with that," Gronkowski explained. "It's not just not being able to be with your teammates and all that. It's outside of football, too. Because it takes away your whole life, going out like that . . . You can't do anything. You can't walk. You gotta have people do [things for you]. You get really frustrated. You just want the people around you to help you out and keep you in the best mindset throughout the whole process."

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Patriots-Falcons practice report: Gilmore, Rowe absent; Hogan added

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Patriots-Falcons practice report: Gilmore, Rowe absent; Hogan added

FOXBORO -- Chris Hogan only had one catch for 19 yards against the Jets. He very nearly had a second grab in the second quarter, but Tom Brady's throw was off the mark, and Hogan's ribs were exposed for rookie safety Marcus Maye to hammer. The pass fell incomplete and Hogan crumpled to the turf. 

He didn't leave the game, but Hogan did end up on Wednesday's injury report as a limited participant in practice due to a ribs injury. He was one of three players added to this week's injury report. Linebacker Elandon Roberts has an ankle injury and did not participate in Wednesday's workout. Guard Shaq Mason has a shoulder issue and was limited. 

Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore, neither of whom were spotted at the start of the session, did not participate.

Here's Wednesday's full practice participation/injury report for Sunday's Patriots-Falcons game:

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

DID NOT PARTICIPATE
CB Stephon Gilmore (concussion/ankle)
LB Harvey Langi (back)
LB Elandon Roberts (ankle)
CB Eric Rowe (groin)

LIMITED PARTICIPATION
RB Rex Burkhead (ribs)
WR Chris Hogan (ribs)
G Shaq Mason (shoulder)

ATLANTA FALCONS

DID NOT PARTICIPATE
K Matt Bryant (back)

LIMITED PARTICIPATION
OLB Vic Beasley Jr. (hamstring)
LB Jermaine Grace (hamstring)
LB Deion Jones (quadricep)
DE Takk McKinley (shoulder)
LB Duke Riley (knee)
WR Mohamed Sanu (hamstring)
DL Courtney Upshaw (ankle/knee)