FOXBORO -- It could have been that it was the last question of his press conference on Thursday and he was ready to step down from the podium. It could have been that the answer didn't require much in the way of thought.
Whatever the reason, Dont'a Hightower was quick to reply when I asked if he was happy with where he was physically after playing in two games -- a loss to the Panthers and a win over the Bucs -- following a two-game absence due to an MCL injury.
"No," he said without hesitation.
Instead of dwelling on the state of his conditioning, however, Hightower highlighted the fact that time lost for him was a missed opportunity to work with teammates -- especially the new ones -- and develop alongside them.
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"I mean, just missing time like that is time that I’m not going to get back, time that I missed on the field with my teammates, that chemistry that I missed," he said. "But my experience in the defense helps me a little bit more than most. Every rep that I can get whether it’s in there with [Deatrich] Wise, or [Adam] Butler, or [Cassius] Marsh or just guys that I’m not in there with, I take full advantage of that.
"Even today watching film I got the new guys right around me so we're all talking and we're communicating and we're trying to progress as a defense. It’s not a one-man thing. We're not depending on one person or anything like that. We’re only as good as our weakest link so we're just trying to keep everybody as sharp as we can."
Hightower played in a season-high 62 of 72 snaps in Tampa Bay. Against the Panthers five days prior, he played in 37 of a possible 63.
That he saw as much playing time as he did on short rest is an indication that a) his knee was feeling strong and b) the coaching staff felt it needed him on the field for almost 90 percent of the team's defensive plays. Hightower responded with what looked like fresh legs, moving with good energy and without any obvious limitations. It wasn't a perfect night, but he recorded four quarterback hurries and made a key run stop in the third quarter that helped force a Bucs punt.
Last Thursday's steady workload for HIghtower was a notable change from what had been a herky-jerky beginning to the 2017 season for the 27-year-old. He spent the early portion of training camp on the physically unable to perform list, and did not play in the preseason. Once he got going, he had the carpet ripped out from under him in the form of a Chiefs defender falling on his leg during the season opener.
By Week 4 he was healthy enough to be trusted in critical situations -- he sacked Cam Newton late in the fourth quarter to force a punt and allow the Patriots an opportunity to tie -- but he was far from a full-time player.
Just a few days later, though, Hightower was ready for more work. And after spending the vast majority of his snaps on the edge in Weeks 1 and 4, Hightower was plopped back into the middle of things for the Patriots in Tampa, which may have helped iron out whatever communication problems the team had against Carolina the week before.
"I think communication is on me whether I’m on the ball or not, but it’s definitely a lot easier being in the middle," he said. "Being on the edge is kind of on an island. Last week was great on the ball or off the ball.
"I think in the linebacker room with me, KV [Kyle Van Noy], [Marquis] Flowers, David [Harris] and E-Rob [Elandon Roberts] – I think we've done a good job as far as trying to grow the front-seven, the back end as far as communication and how we go about that. That helped last week so hopefully we'll just continue to build on that. Half the time it was us misaligned and wasn’t communication, so if we can nip that in the bud and stop ourselves from shooting ourselves in the foot, that'll be big."
It will be worth watching to see if Hightower continues to see time in the middle -- a move his former teammate Jerod Mayo had been clamoring for on Quick Slants the Podcast -- against the Jets. The two-time captain's presence, and his voice, carries weight with teammates when it comes time to make adjustments at the line. And when the pre-snap conversations are brief (or one-sided) that helps the Patriots play faster, Hightower explained.
"Last week was a lot faster and a lot more aggressive," he said. "If we were able to communicate and talk and get all of that stuff out of the way then we're able to play faster. It shouldn’t have to come to that. It should be that every play. Like I said, we're building, hopefully. It’s a little later than we'd like to, but there's no time like the present."
Hightower could say the same for himself. It's a little later than he'd like to be hitting his stride, but it looks like he's getting close.