Patriots

McCourty knows Patriots have to quickly adjust to Hightower's loss

McCourty knows Patriots have to quickly adjust to Hightower's loss

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."

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EX-PATS PODCAST: How Belichick the perfectionist will find flaws in win vs. Raiders

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EX-PATS PODCAST: How Belichick the perfectionist will find flaws in win vs. Raiders

0:55 - Patriots playing great as they stream roll the Raiders but Koppen explains that Belichick will knock them down as he strives for perfection. Also talk about how it takes a couple months into the season for the coaches and players to learn each other again.

5:40 - Stephon Gilmore playing excellent lined up against Michael Crabtree. Malcolm Butler bounces back but gives up the only score to Amari Cooper. Koppen suggest Butler’s contract situation might be affecting his play. 

7:50 - All in on the Patriots defense yet? Giardi and Koppen discuss the defensive play and the upcoming offenses the Patriots will be facing.

10:30 - Dan Koppen talks about job security in the NFL and if he ever worried about somebody else taking his job, and the cutthroat nature of the Patriots. 

13:50 - Tom Brady picking apart the Raiders and Jack Del Rio’s defenses throughout his career. 

17:45 - A debate about Patriots backup quarterbacks and if Matt Cassel was actually a good NFL QB. 

21:20 - A few game notes: Rex Burkhead’s fumble vs. the Raiders, LaAdrian Waddle filling in for Marcus Cannon. 

Speed to burn: Cooks, Brady team up to form most productive deep-ball combo

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Speed to burn: Cooks, Brady team up to form most productive deep-ball combo

The first came in the second quarter, when Brandin Cooks turned on afterburners to beat a Raiders double team and glide underneath a Tom Brady heave for 52 yards. The second came in the third quarter, on the third play from scrimmage of the second half, when Cooks faked an out-route, jetted past rookie corner Obi Melifonwu, and sped into the end zone to make the score 24-0. 

Both deep completions in New England's 33-8 win over Oakland just added to cumulative effect that Cooks has had on the Patriots offense since arriving before the season to become their top deep threat. 

Paired with Brady, Cooks has actually become the most productive deep threat in the NFL. 

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According to Pro Football Focus, Cooks leads all receivers with 431 yards on deep passes (throws that travel 20 yards or more down the field). In second place is Houston's DeAndre Hopkins with 313 yards. 

And Brady, who has long been more effective in the short-to-intermediate range than he has been deep, is now among the league leaders in creating explosive plays from the quarterback position. The Patriots are third in the NFL with 41 pass plays of 20 yards or more, and they are tied for second with nine plays of 40 yards or more. 

"You're always trying to work on that," Brady told WEEI's Kirk and Callahan Show of his team's deep passing game. "It's not one particular year [you work on it]. I think that's been a concerted effort by our entire offense, trying to make more explosive plays in the pass game. 

"Sometimes your offense is built differently. We actually have some guys now that can really get down the field so that becomes more of a point of emphasis. The way Brandin runs, the way that Chris Hogan runs, the way that Phillip Dorsett runs, they're very fast. You need to be able to take advantage of their skill set . . . 

"When we had David Patten we were throwing it deep. I mean, but David Patten didn't run a lot of short routes. I would say Brandin Cooks, in general, he doesn't run a lot of short routes. Everyone has a different role. If we can get by you, I think that's a good place to throw the ball. if we can't, we gotta figure out ways to throw it underneath and different weeks are going to call for different things based on the strengths of the defenses we're playing, too."

A week before beating the Raiders, against the Broncos and their talented corners, the Patriots had less luck pushing the ball down the field -- though they tried to hit Cooks deep multiple times. In Mexico City, Cooks matched up with a weaker secondary, and he wasn't at all slowed by the altitude, catching six passes in all for 149 yards and a score. 

Per PFF, Cooks has seen almost one third of his targets (30 percent) come on deep passes, which is the ninth-highest rate in the league. He's caught all 11 of his catchable deep passes, three of them accounting for scores.

"Obviously when you're throwing the ball 50-60 yards down the field," Brady said, "your chances of completion go down, but if you hit it, it ends up being a very explosive plays and you can change a lot of field position and get a defense really on their heels if they have to defend every blade of grass on the field." 

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