Patriots

Communication issues mean it's time for Hightower to return to the middle

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Communication issues mean it's time for Hightower to return to the middle

TAMPA, Fla. -- Everyone's focused on the secondary. And rightly so. The errors have been there for people to see in real time on their TVs. When Devin McCourty places his team's recent struggles squarely on the shoulders of Patriots defensive backs and corners, then it confirms the obvious. 

But the overall communication taking place on Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia's defense could stand to improve. That includes the second level, where linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts weren't without their faults in last weekend's loss to Carolina. Where were they, for instance, on Fozzy Whitaker's 28-yard unencumbered parade into the end zone? How did Cam Newton have so many wide-open lanes up the middle when he tucked and ran?

So what's the fix? 

PATRIOTS VS. BUCS

Van Noy has been trusted as an every-down linebacker and it looks like his role is going to be consistent from week to week. Roberts, however, is dealing with an ankle injury and is questionable for Thursday night. 

If Roberts can't play, might the Patriots benefit from having one of their smartest defenders back in the middle of the field? 

It's time for Dont'a Hightower to reclaim his role as on of the team's middle linebackers, Jerod Mayo told Quick Slants the Podcast this week

"Hightower has to get back in the middle of the defense," Mayo said. "I know he's not healthy and that's why they're not doing it. Right now he's on situational pass-rush downs and things like that . . . It's kind of like playing the telephone game. There's so many lines of communication, it's going to get fouled up."

That gets to a point that Mayo has conveyed several times over the course of the year, going back to when David Harris was signed in the offseason. 

What made the Harris signing a smart one, Mayo believed at the time, was that Harris had the football IQ and the clout to tell players around him on the field what to do. Even in his first year with a new team. 

It's a one-voice philosophy. Even if that voice is wrong, the theory goes, massive errors can be avoided because everyone's on the same page. It's when there's a chorus of traffic directors on the field, all sharing different perspectives, when things go to hell. 

That hasn't worked with Harris because his physical limitations at this point are such that the Patriots haven't trusted him to keep up athletically. He's played seven snaps through four games and was a healthy scratch against the Panthers. 

Maybe Harris' workload will change if Roberts can't play, or maybe the Patriots will simply swap out an off-the-ball linebacker for another defensive back. 

But Mayo's solution is to move Hightower from the edge -- where he's played almost exclusively this season -- to the middle.

It's not necessarily about wearing the green dot and relaying the calls from Patricia to the players on the field. That's relatively simple, and it's something that Van Noy has handled this season without issue. 

It's more about adjusting the players around him in the heat of the moment. 

For example, the Patriots will very likely see their share of bunch formations from the Bucs offense on Thursday; the Panthers gashed them to the tune of 160 yards and a touchdown on 12 pass attempts out of that formation. But Tampa Bay won't simply run bunch formations onto the field and make them easy for the Patriots to decipher. 

"They're going to make you start to think," Mayo explained. "I remember when we used to play Rex Ryan defenses, the Bills and the Jets. We're like, 'The defense is SO hard for these guys to pick up, let's just -- they call it window dressing -- let's put some window dressing on this thing.' And all of a sudden these guys are spinning heads. Now they're zone-blitzing from both sides. There's a zone missing. That's where this [Patriots] defense is headed now until they get it together."

There are some road-blocks to getting Hightower back into the middle against the Bucs, as Mayo alluded. 

Coming off of a knee injury that forced him from games in Weeks 2 and 3, the team may want to keep him from the chaos that tends to find its way into the middle of the field. And then there's the fact that the Patriots are on a short week, and shifting Hightower -- who has been on the edge since he returned to practice off the PUP list before the start of the season -- may require more prep work than just a couple of walkthroughs.

But the benefits of getting Hightower back to where he was as Mayo's replacement are obvious. Communication. Communication. Communication. 

The Patriots often say communication is a two-way street. But when it works best, it's really a one-way alley. One person speaks. The other listens. 

There's no time for conversation. The Patriots had plenty of those before the snap last week, and they often had to disastrous results.

"I say a call. You hear a call," is how Mayo described it. "What's happening now is a bunch of finger-pointing."

Having Hightower's voice back to in middle wouldn't be a cure-all, and it probably can't happen this week. But it feels like it would help, and the Patriots defense isn't in position to turn that down at the moment.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

QUICK SLANTS PODCAST: Belichick ignoring noise? Or trying to change the narrative?

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QUICK SLANTS PODCAST: Belichick ignoring noise? Or trying to change the narrative?

3:00 Why has Bill Belichick been so surprisingly positive of his team’s performance in tight wins?

6:30 Phil Perry breaks down what grades he gave the Patriots on his report card following the win over the Jets

15:00 Reaction to the Austin-Seferian Jenkins overturned touchdown, and what changes need to be made in the NFL replay system. 

23:00 Why was Patriots offensive line much more effective against Jets?

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

25:00 Patriots-Falcons preview, how did Falcons blow a 17 point lead to the Dolphins?

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

FOXBORO - We’re not quite at the point of fire and brimstone coming down from the skies, or 40 years of darkness, or even dogs and cats living together, but this Patriots season isn’t headed down the right path, despite a 4-2 record and the top spot in the AFC East. 

There are several elements that appear missing at this juncture - chief among them a defense that actually has a clue. Please don’t celebrate holding the Jets to 17 points - I’m looking at you, Dont’a Hightower. Josh McCown threw for just 194 yards against the Cleveland freakin’ Browns for goodness sake, but he got you for 354 and two scores?! Even the 2009 Patriots defense is offended by that.

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We’d be foolish to think the Pats can’t get this leaky unit fixed for reasons so obvious I won’t state them in this space so as not to waste my time or yours. We also know - long before Bill Belichick’s 6 1/2-minute explanation on the Monday conference call - that it's not supposed to be perfect right now. Actually, it’ll never be perfect. That’s not how this game works. 

Yet week after week, we see uncommon breakdowns and one defender looking at the next as if to say, “I thought you had him?” or more to the point, “what the hell were you doing?” It started Sunday at MetLife on the third play of the game. Malcolm Butler, playing 10 yards off Robby Anderson, looking as if he’s never played the position before, inexplicably turning his back on Anderson even though the wide receiver makes no real move to the post. That results in just about the easiest completion of McCown’s life, a 23-yarder on third-and-10. 

On the same series, on another third-and-long, the Pats rushed four and dropped seven into coverage. Defensive end Cassius Marsh continued his season-long trend of rushing so far upfield he ended up in Hoboken. With Deatrich Wise ridden outside on the opposite edge, McCown wisely stepped up and found prime real estate with New York City views. He wanted to throw and could have when the Pats fouled up a crossing route from the backside of the play. But with that much room to roam, McCown took off, scooting for a quick 16 yards and another first down.

Fittingly, that drive ended with a Jets touchdown on yet another dumb play, this one courtesy of Mr. Hit or Miss, Elandon Roberts. Channeling his inner Brandon Spikes, the second-year pro blew off his key and responsibility on third-and-goal from the 1, charging hard to the line. This, despite one of the most feeble play-action fakes you’ll see. In fact, I’m not even sure it was a real play-action fake. Anyway, score it as a touchdown to Austin Seferian-Jenkins and an indictment on David Harris, who apparently can’t vault past the erratic Roberts on the depth chart.

Similar to the week prior in Tampa, the Pats found better footing after that. They forced three straight three-and-outs in the second quarter and then helped turn the game when Butler intercepted an ill-advised throw by McCown just prior to the half. They got another turnover to start the third, with Butler coming off the edge on fourth-and-1 and forcing McCown into panic mode. The veteran QB fired an off-target throw to - get this - a wide open receiver who went uncovered on a drag route and Devin McCourty was gifted an interception.

But this group frowns on prosperity. It took a little-seen rule to prevent a Seferian-Jenkins touchdown in the fourth, and on the game’s final drive, the Pats allowed a 32-yard completion on fourth-and-12. Then, on what turned out to be the Jets final play, the Pats let Tavaris Cadet leak out of the backfield and run unchecked 20 yards down the field. Had McCown not soiled himself again, Gang Green would have had a first down and at least one crack at the end zone. Then, who knows what the heck happens?

It was just a season ago that the Patriots led the entire NFL in scoring defense. If you’ll recall, we spent a better part of the year wondering if that defense was championship quality. Turns out they were. Right now, we’re wondering once again if this defense is of that ilk, but through an entirely different prism. It’s on the players and staff to change the current outlook, or those cats and dogs will have to figure out their shared space.