- Maddie Meyer/Getty
- Dont’a Hightower, a defensive captain and fan favorite, tore a pectoral muscle and will miss the rest of the season. The Patriots’ defense ranks last in the NFL according to multiple defensive metrics. The injury occurred just as the Patriots were starting to make progress on the defensive side.
The New England Patriots’ defense has been a major liability this season, and it looks like the situation is about to get worse.
The Patriots rank last in the NFL according to several traditional defensive metrics, including total yards surrendered and yards surrendered per play. They also rank 31st in defense DVOA, an advanced stat developed by Football Outsiders.
As unsightly as those numbers are, the worst may still be on the horizon. On Thursday, Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported that the star linebacker and defensive captain Dont’a Hightower is out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, dealing a massive blow to the Patriots’ already leaky unit.
“This is one of their best players, their rock on defense, their leader, the player who calls the signals,” Rapoport said on NFL Network’s “Good Morning Football.” “Hard to overstate how significant this loss is for the New England Patriots.”
Hightower hurt himself while tackling Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman last Sunday. He remained down for a moment after the play but managed to play the next snap before exiting the game. Rapoport’s update was a surprise to some who thought Hightower would be ready to return during the season.
Hightower totaled 14 tackles and 2 sacks this season. It’s a disappointing result for the Patriots, especially considering all the money they owe him. Hightower was one of the top free agents of the summer, but New England managed to lure him back home with a four-year, $35.5 million contract.
In the meantime, the Patriots will continue to start Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts at linebacker, with Marquis Flowers and David Harris looking like the most likely candidates to fill Hightower’s spot. They also signed the former practice squad member Trevor Reilly earlier this week, giving them some depth at the position.
But while the Patriots have a plan, that doesn’t mean Hightower’s absence won’t be felt. The Tennessee native also missed the second and third weeks of the season, watching as New England surrendered 20 and 33 points in those games. He is one of the longest-tenured players on the squad, and his veteran leadership and knowledge of the playbook make him a favorite of the coaching staff.
Still, the Patriots don’t seem particularly worried. After an abysmal start to the year, they’ve held their opponents to fewer than 20 points in each of the past three weeks, a stat Van Noy attributes to improved chemistry.
“When we have a plan like that with new guys, we have to get them all on the same page,” he said on SiriusXM NFL Radio on Tuesday. “It took some time. Now we’re slowly figuring out how to play with each other and getting better and better each week.”
The Patriots will face the Los Angeles Chargers in Gillette Stadium this Sunday before enjoying their bye in Week 9.