Now that we know Dont'a Hightower has a torn pectoral muscle, the focus will shift to the remaining pieces in Bill Belichick's front seven. How can you replace a player with the experience and the unique physical skill set that Hightower brought to the field?
Make no mistake. There's not a one-for-one substitution to be made. It will require a many-hands-make-light-work approach.
Hightower began the season playing primarily as an edge defender, giving the Patriots a boost to their pass-rushing personnel after Derek Rivers sustained a torn ACL during training camp and Rob Ninkovich retired. But a move back to the linebacker level in recent weeks seems to have solidified the team's communication. Hightower was the most experienced front-seven player on the Patriots roster, and having him in the middle of the field made his teammates' lives a little easier on a snap-to-snap basis.
So let's start there. When it comes to fill-ins at the second level, there are a few. Kyle Van Noy will likely shoulder more of the communication in Hightower's absence. He is already a three-down player, so he won't see any kind of significant up-tick in playing time. But when it comes to helping direct traffic he could be the new go-to guy. Wednesday marked the one-year anniversary of his trade to New England from Detroit, and he told NBC Sports Boston that he's come a long way since Oct. 25, 2016 at 1 p.m.
"I feel like I've started to understand what's going on more in the defense," Van Noy said. "I'm able to change things and just be looked upon more as a leader since I've been here a year. But many think I've been here my whole career since I'm able to know the defense pretty well and the ins and outs of it. It was stressful when I first got here. Big difference now."
Van Noy also has some experience as an edge defender and so perhaps Hightower's injury will force him down to take more snaps at the end of the line of scrimmage. He picked up a half-sack in the Super Bowl running a stunt as a defensive lineman.
MORE ON DONT'A HIGHTOWER
The next option at the second level would likely be Elandon Roberts, who missed Sunday's win over the Falcons with an ankle injury and was limited in Wednesday's practice. He's shown to be a proficient run defender in his first year-plus as a pro, but he's still developing in the passing game as a touchdown allowed to Jets tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins showed.
That aspect of the defense may be where Shea McClellin is able to chip in. McClellin is still on injured reserve, but he began practicing last week and is eligible to return to action following New England's Week 9 bye. A versatile piece for Belichick and Matt Patricia, McClellin has experience both at the linebacker level and as a pass-rusher. With Hightower out, McClellin could potentially see more time going up the field to disrupt opposing quarterbacks, but his length and athleticism make him an option in coverage as well.
Then there's David Harris. The possibility of this situation arising -- with the Patriots losing Hightower for an extended period of time -- was why many believed Harris was here in the first place. Should Hightower be out, the thinking went, Harris could step in and provide stability and savvy in the middle of the Patriots defense. It may not work out that way given that Harris has found himself behind Van Noy and Roberts on the linebacker depth chart this season, but the 33-year-old played a season-high 19 snaps against the Falcons last weekend and performed well. Perhaps he's earned himself more snaps moving forward in Hightower's absence. Belichick has praised Harris several times this season for his professionalism.
The Patriots called-up linebacker Trevor Reilly on Wednesday from the practice squad, though his experience is more in the kicking game. Same goes for Marquis Flowers, who has played 24 defensive snaps this season, but has served mostly as a core special-teamer.
When it comes to the void left on the edge, the Patriots could turn to ends Cassius Marsh and Deatrich Wise to take on bigger workloads if the team opts to use Van Noy and McClellin primarily as off-the-line players. After that, who knows? The trade deadline is less than a week away. And if nothing works out on that front, maybe the Patriots can dial up Ninkovich. On this week's Quick Slants the Podcast, Jerod Mayo suggested they do exactly that: