If we made a list of the non-Brady Patriots that New England could least afford to lose, Dont'a Hightower and Julian Edelman would have been in the top five joined by Devin McCourty, Nate Solder and Malcolm Butler. You could also Gronk here if you want to.
Regardless of the order you’d place them in – or if you’d want to offer someone else – the fact Edelman’s down for the season and Hightower’s MCL is almost guaranteed to keep him out of Sunday’s game in New Orleans (that’s just spitballing on my part given the grotesque way his right knee bent), is an early dose of adversity the team just has to suck down and try to stomach.
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The “they did it before, they can do it again” mindset is fine. The Patriots will inevitably figure it out to a degree that keeps them in the league’s upper firmament. But it’s not going to be pretty. It’s worth getting your head around that now. The 2016 team that was downgraded for style points during a 14-2 that ended with a Super Bowl win may not be winning by knockout any time soon.
I’ve already pummeled the Edelman Factor into submission. He’s been the oil in the engine of the Patriots offense. Without him – or anyone to challenge the middle of the field at the linebacker level even when there’s traffic – the ride will be bumpy until Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady arrive at what works best most often.
But the Hightower loss is just as significant because of the new parts on defense and the fact the Patriots are a game-plan team. If New England ran a “do what we do” defense like Pittsburgh or Seattle, losing the most influential member of the front-seven may not be as big a deal. You’d just plug the next man in, deal with the dropoff in talent and go. But Hightower has the most institutional knowledge of anyone in the front-seven. He’s got the most authoritative and trusted voice.
Even before Hightower was forced from the opener in the second half with his injury, the team was having issues getting things communicated with Kyle Van Noy in the middle as the defensive signal-caller and Hightower at left defensive end.
Hightower went out with 7:08 left in the third with Kansas City leading, 21-17. The final was 42-21. Some of the big plays were related to communication issues. Would his mere presence have made a difference in the way things got mapped out before the snap? No guarantee. But Hightower’s exit and the Chiefs’ explosion do dovetail neatly.
Van Noy isn’t incapable of communicating the defense. He’s not a dummy. But he was taking his first stab at it against a Chiefs offense that uses formation and personnel groups as well as any team in the league to mess with a defense’s head. The Saints – Sunday’s opponent – are similar. Alongside Van Noy for a big chunk of the game was safety Jordan Richard who is getting his first extended run in the regular defense. He is on the hook for relaying communication as well because of where he is on the field.
So that’s a problem. What’s the solution? On Quick Slants the Podcast, former Patriots captain, linebacker and lead communicator Jerod Mayo had this to say.
“I’m more concerned with the communication than the personnel. The communication was brutal. The thing about having Hightower at the line of scrimmage – it’s great – but you can’t talk to the entire defense playing defensive end. You’re so far removed. That’s why having a middle linebacker in there who can turn around and say (to safety Devin McCourty), ‘Devin, we’re doing this.’ And can say to (defensive tackle Alan Branch), ‘Alan, we’re doing this.’ That’s the missing piece. You’re not going to have a Jordan Richards making calls. It’s just not gonna happen. This will be interesting, especially going against the Saints, for Matty P (Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia). They’re gonna formation you to death, you have to know what back is in the game at all times. They have three backs with three different skill sets. So how do they trim the fat from the game plan? How do you trim the fat and make the calls easy so a guy like Jordan Richards can make calls with confidence. It’s all about confidence. Jordan Richards went to Stanford. He’s probably one of the smartest kids on the team. But it goes to confidence.
“I remember being benched in 2008 when I was rookie of the year. Bill benched me. We were preparing to play San Francisco and I was calling the pass-rushing schemes on the field and you could legit smell the smoke coming out of my ears trying to process everything he was telling me to do. But doing that, you gain confidence. Now, for Jordan Richards, he’s got to tell Alan Branch to get his ass down in the B-gap? It’s just not gonna happen (because of his experience level). It’s hard for Hightower to do it on the outside. Someone has to say, “Everyone shut up. This is what we’re doing. We’ll get to the sideline and figure it out.”
Mayo, by the way, pointed out that he now weighs 225 and is quite happy doing exactly what he’s doing with his life so he’s not coming back. But his point still carries weight.
Without Hightower in the middle – or even on the field – getting all 11 defensive players on the same page and doing their jobs without having to wonder if everyone else will be doing theirs is going to be a chore.
And the Saints know that too. So that’s the chess game to watch on Sunday.