Dont'a Hightower

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

FOXBORO - We’re not quite at the point of fire and brimstone coming down from the skies, or 40 years of darkness, or even dogs and cats living together, but this Patriots season isn’t headed down the right path, despite a 4-2 record and the top spot in the AFC East. 

There are several elements that appear missing at this juncture - chief among them a defense that actually has a clue. Please don’t celebrate holding the Jets to 17 points - I’m looking at you, Dont’a Hightower. Josh McCown threw for just 194 yards against the Cleveland freakin’ Browns for goodness sake, but he got you for 354 and two scores?! Even the 2009 Patriots defense is offended by that.

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We’d be foolish to think the Pats can’t get this leaky unit fixed for reasons so obvious I won’t state them in this space so as not to waste my time or yours. We also know - long before Bill Belichick’s 6 1/2-minute explanation on the Monday conference call - that it's not supposed to be perfect right now. Actually, it’ll never be perfect. That’s not how this game works. 

Yet week after week, we see uncommon breakdowns and one defender looking at the next as if to say, “I thought you had him?” or more to the point, “what the hell were you doing?” It started Sunday at MetLife on the third play of the game. Malcolm Butler, playing 10 yards off Robby Anderson, looking as if he’s never played the position before, inexplicably turning his back on Anderson even though the wide receiver makes no real move to the post. That results in just about the easiest completion of McCown’s life, a 23-yarder on third-and-10. 

On the same series, on another third-and-long, the Pats rushed four and dropped seven into coverage. Defensive end Cassius Marsh continued his season-long trend of rushing so far upfield he ended up in Hoboken. With Deatrich Wise ridden outside on the opposite edge, McCown wisely stepped up and found prime real estate with New York City views. He wanted to throw and could have when the Pats fouled up a crossing route from the backside of the play. But with that much room to roam, McCown took off, scooting for a quick 16 yards and another first down.

Fittingly, that drive ended with a Jets touchdown on yet another dumb play, this one courtesy of Mr. Hit or Miss, Elandon Roberts. Channeling his inner Brandon Spikes, the second-year pro blew off his key and responsibility on third-and-goal from the 1, charging hard to the line. This, despite one of the most feeble play-action fakes you’ll see. In fact, I’m not even sure it was a real play-action fake. Anyway, score it as a touchdown to Austin Seferian-Jenkins and an indictment on David Harris, who apparently can’t vault past the erratic Roberts on the depth chart.

Similar to the week prior in Tampa, the Pats found better footing after that. They forced three straight three-and-outs in the second quarter and then helped turn the game when Butler intercepted an ill-advised throw by McCown just prior to the half. They got another turnover to start the third, with Butler coming off the edge on fourth-and-1 and forcing McCown into panic mode. The veteran QB fired an off-target throw to - get this - a wide open receiver who went uncovered on a drag route and Devin McCourty was gifted an interception.

But this group frowns on prosperity. It took a little-seen rule to prevent a Seferian-Jenkins touchdown in the fourth, and on the game’s final drive, the Pats allowed a 32-yard completion on fourth-and-12. Then, on what turned out to be the Jets final play, the Pats let Tavaris Cadet leak out of the backfield and run unchecked 20 yards down the field. Had McCown not soiled himself again, Gang Green would have had a first down and at least one crack at the end zone. Then, who knows what the heck happens?

It was just a season ago that the Patriots led the entire NFL in scoring defense. If you’ll recall, we spent a better part of the year wondering if that defense was championship quality. Turns out they were. Right now, we’re wondering once again if this defense is of that ilk, but through an entirely different prism. It’s on the players and staff to change the current outlook, or those cats and dogs will have to figure out their shared space.

Patriots win, but aren't satisfied with 'all’s well that ends well' victories

Patriots win, but aren't satisfied with 'all’s well that ends well' victories

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The turning point in Sunday’s game wasn’t the Jets much-discussed overturned touchdown in the fourth quarter.

It came just before and right after the half when Malcolm Butler picked off Josh McCown with 40 seconds left, Tom Brady hit Brandin Cooks with a 42-yard cloudscraper and the Patriots punched it in then tacked on another touchdown after the break. A 14-7 deficit threatening to balloon had flipped to a 21-14 lead.

Asked about that in his postgame press conference, Bill Belichick offered an answer that serves as a microcosm for the Patriots through their first six games.

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“We didn’t really handle the end of the half the way we wanted to handle it,” he said. “We got down there with a minute-and-a-half and then threw three incomplete passes and missed a field goal. We were fortunate to get the ball back and able to capitalize on that opportunity. Cooks made a great catch for us down the field. It turned out alright, we scored before the half, but that’s not really the way we were trying to handle the whole situation.”

“All’s well that ends well” isn’t really what the Patriots 16-season run of success has been about, and that’s why this win – like most of the rest – comes with caveats and yeah buts.

“I wish we would have done better but we won so … there is probably a lot to learn from it,” said Brady. “I wish we could have played a little bit better offensively.

“We just didn’t execute as well as we needed to,” he added. “I think that’s probably the big thing. Just execution. We’ll keep at it. It’s only the sixth game of the year so there’s still a lot to figure out and we’ll just keep going out to practice and try to do better.”

The palate-cleansing 10-day layoff after a scrappy, short-week win on the road over Tampa was spoiled early on Sunday. The Jets converted five of their first six third downs on an 88-yard drive then went ahead 14-0 after the Patriots fumbled on their second drive.

After that, the defense settled in for a stretch as the offense slowly got its footing and erased the deficit. There were positives in the mix. Brady was much more well-protected than he’s been (no sacks, four quarterback hits) and the running game was as effective as it’s been all year. But the little inefficiencies for a team that’s long been so efficient nagged like a pebble in the shoe.

“There’s a handful of us that aren’t playing up to our potential and I think it stings,” said left tackle Nate Solder. “People say ‘great job’ but you know how much better it could be. That’s how I feel and I think some other guys feel the same way. It takes a lot to win so I understand that we have to enjoy that but you also take it hard when you’re not playing the way you think you can play. I appreciate every player and every second we’re playing and every ounce of effort and I want to play better. Both can be true.”

The Patriots are like a scratch golfer putting up a 78. Good for you. Good for me. He ain’t gonna like it though.

Surveying the NFL landscape, the Patriots are pretty much like the rest of the NFL’s presumed upper-crust. The Falcons blew a 17-point lead and lost to the Dolphins on Sunday. The Chiefs lost at home to the Steelers who were presumed dead last week. The Raiders lost to the Chargers. We could go on with the litany of examples of other teams trying to find their footing. The difference here is that the expectation wasn’t that the Patriots were in the bucket with the “other teams.” The expectation was that they were far and away the class of the NFL.

We were disabused of that notion weeks ago, but even so, the improvement is glacially slow in coming. Josh McCown dropped 354 yards on them on Sunday and the Jets went 9 for 17 on third down.

Brady’s agitation with the inefficiency – and he wasn’t flawless on Sunday by a far sight – is part of the process as well. Whether it was his cup-throwing rage in 2010 when the Patriots were playing at Pittsburgh or his screaming at the moon in 2013 in the rain during a Week 2 game against the Jets, eventually he’s going to go to the whip as a leader.

“I’m always a little edgy out there for one reason or another,” he explained when asked why he was running hot. “It’s just an emotional game. I don’t know what it was today, I think it was just frustration from the way things were going and our execution. It just blows up a little bit.”

I asked Dont'a Hightower how important it is for the leaders on the team to make sure there’s a refusal to settle for “good enough.”

“We have the right guys saying it and guys are buying in, but we need to keep harping on it,” he said. “We know what we need to do we just haven’t gone out and done it for a full 60 minutes.”

I asked him if that performance is coming.

“I hope so,” he replied. 

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Dont'a Hightower feels he still has a ways to go after missing time

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Dont'a Hightower feels he still has a ways to go after missing time

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.

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