FOXBORO -- It's time to go. No time for mourning. No time to look at one another with raised eyebrows and pursed lips. Replacing Dont'a Hightower will be one of the most difficult tasks the Patriots undertake all season, but they have to figure things out and quickly.
The bus, as they say, keeps moving.
"It's a tough loss," Devin McCourty said Thursday. "He's obviously a guy who's been out there for a lot of years now, played multiple roles in the defense, been in different spots, communication, everything. He's a huge part of what we do. We've been out there for a couple games without him so we know what that's like. But it's always a sad thing when a guy like that goes down. A bunch of guys have to step up and try to kind of fill that role -- in this case a bunch of different roles."
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And they can't wait around to get comfortable in filling those roles, McCourty insisted.
"Guys have to be ready to go when you get in," he said. "Can't afford for it to take a while to find out who's going to play good football. We need to continue to get better. That doesn't change with anybody going out, myself, anyone. If they're not there, someone has to step up and play. It can't be open tryouts each week we go out there and play a game or defensively that will be really bad for us."
Whether it's with the players already on the Patriots roster, or whether it's by acquiring someone before the trade deadline, the Patriots understand there's a void to be filled. And for McCourty, someone who has seen his share of season-ending injuries to star teammates on both sides of the ball since arriving to New England in 2010, he's confident that it will be filled.
"As a team, we'll always figure it out," he said. "I firmly believe. Our coaching staff spends a lot of hours in here figuring out what we need to do personnel-wise. Who needs to play here. What works. What won't work. We'll figure that out whether that takes a quarter or two quarters, it'll happen. We'll figure that out. But High's been through a lot this year trying to get back on the field. I think he was actually starting to feel good and feel better. Just a tough blow for him."
McCourty was around when Jerod Mayo suffered a torn pectoral muscle in 2013. Then Mayo tore his patella tendon in the middle of the 2014 season and was gone again.
Given Hightower's importance to the Patriots defense as the quarterback of of the front seven and one of the team's captains, there are some similarities to the circumstances though they were different situations.
"In '13 it was different," McCourty said, "because it was the first time that I had been here that he was out for a season so that was a little different . . . It was tough just to fill his leadership role, but a lot of guys had a lot of football experience and I thought was ready to take on that role.
"[Elandon Roberts] has been out there a good amount and [David Harris] got a good amount of playing time last week and he's a veteran so he's always ready to go in there. Obviously [Kyle Van Noy] has been out there and played a lot of snaps this season. Guys are out there and ready to go.
"When injuries happen it gives a lot of guys opportunity to play now. The thing that I think has been great about being in this building is a lot of guys have been waiting for opportunity and they work hard and they try to prepare themselves and be ready if anything happens. Very unfortunate for High, but some guys will get an opportunity to step up."
As challenging as it will be to find a way to replace what Hightower gave the defense, McCourty said there is a silver lining in that the team went through this before earlier this season.
"I think we're better than we were early in the season," McCourty said. "High played against Kansas City and then I think he missed two games. I think we're in better shape than we were then. But guys have to step up and play well right away. It can't be, we're waiting all the way for four or five weeks. Guys have to step up and be ready to go."