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?
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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.