Patriots

How was Patriots defense able to pick up the slack with Hightower out?

How was Patriots defense able to pick up the slack with Hightower out?

FOXBORO -- When Melvin Gordon sprinted 87 yards for a touchdown on the second Chargers drive of the game, it would have been fair to wonder: Is this what it's going to look like without Dont'a Hightower?

One of the best run defenders on the Patriots and arguably their most important communicator in the front-seven, Hightower's absence figured to show up in certain situations with Los Angeles in town. But for it to happen so quickly? And with such immediate results? 

It was alarming. 

But instead of that single play foreshadowing a calamitous drop-off for Bill Belichick's defense, it was the outlier. The Patriots allowed 157 yards rushing on 21 attempts in their 21-13 win on Sunday, meaning that on all carries other than Gordon's long jaunt, the hosts allowed 3.5 yards per carry.

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"Outside of that one big one," Alan Branch said, "we did a decent job . . . It's just hard to see that number and say you had a good game stopping the run even though they got a lot of it in one big chunk. But it felt pretty good at times."

More than a third (eight) of Chargers carries went for two yards or fewer as Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, Jordan Richards and Cassius Marsh all came up with stuffs near or behind the line of scrimmage. 

"We knew they were going to try to come out and run the ball, especially with the conditions the way they were," David Harris said. "They have a good back over there in Melvin Gordon. They did hit us for that big run, but I think after that we settled down and relaxed and played good Patriot defense." 

"We had a group of guys," Van Noy said, "that needed to step up, including myself, and I thought we did that today."

It was Van Noy (56 snaps) who played a role that most closely resembled Hightower's. There were times when he came off the edge in run support or as a pass-rusher, leaving the middle of the field to Elandon Roberts (40 snaps after missing Week 7 with an ankle injury) and Harris (21 snaps). During others, it was Van Noy helping to set the defense. 

Whichever linebacker was in there -- Marquis Flowers (eight snaps) and Trevor Reilly (three) saw time in the defense as well -- the communication seemed to be relatively smooth. 

Was it perfect? They admitted it was not. But for their teammates up front, there wasn't a noticeable difference in that regard with Hightower out. 

"It didn't skip a beat," Deatrich Wise said. "Those guys really picked it up and communicated and continued to over-communicate on the field. High being out sucked, but there was no drop-off in the communication."

"They did well," Branch said of the 'backers behind him. "They did real well. Basically without skipping a beat, they got all the front where we needed to go. They let us know what the play was and all the checks and everything. I don't think we missed a step on that."

Where the Patriots may miss Hightower's presence most is in his big-play ability, particularly at the ends of games. It seems as though he has a knack for the key moment, as he did in Super Bowl LI, and there are few who can replicate what he can off the edge when he's healthy. 

While the Patriots only picked up one sack on the day thanks to a Philip Rivers fumble that lost the Chargers 20 yards, they did come up with some key pressures late. 

Wise got in for one hit during the game's final drive, and he pressured Rivers on two other occasions. His final push of the pocket may have helped force Rivers into a quicker throw than he would've liked. It was picked by Jonathan Jones at the goal line to end the game. 

Without both Hightower and defensive tackle Malcom Brown, the Patriots defense was able to communicate reasonably well, stop the run when it needed to, and pick up critical pressures late in the game. What's that say about Bill Belichick's defense? 

"What it says is that when people go down, it allows people to step up," Wise said. "And when they step up, good things happen. It sucks not having Maclom and High, but the people behind them had to step up and they did."

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