What Gregory has meant to D

Sharing thoughts on ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter's report that starting safety Steve Gregory sustained a broken thumb and is expected to miss "a few weeks."

1. Could have been much worse from a timeframe standpoint: Based on the way things have gone for the Patriots on the injury front this season, would have anyone have been surprised if this had turned into a season-ending situation for Gregory? In that sense, the "few weeks," as reported by Schefter, is a positive development for the Patriots. When the team's medical and athletic training staff covered Gregory's right hand with a towel as he left for the locker room Sunday, it was easy to assume the worst. Gregory likely has undergone/will need surgery for the injury.

2. Assessing Gregory's impact this year. The improvement from the eighth-year veteran has been notable, and a big part of it is that this is his second year in the system and also that the secondary returned intact from last season. That has aided the overall communication of the unit. They are generally breaking on the ball quicker and playing with more cohesion. Gregory, whose tackling has improved in 2013 (e.g. a 5-yard stop on third-and-6 on Steelers' second drive Sunday), has been a big part of that.

3. Playing-time totals/package-specific player: Unlike fellow safety Devin McCourty, who never leaves the field, Gregory has come off at times in certain packages/game plans. One example is when the Patriots have played a three-cornerback base defense, which is when the coaching staff is looking for more of a coverage-heavy approach. Gregory has also come off in some sub packages, but that is more the exception than the norm. Overall, he has played just shy of 87 percent of the defensive snaps this season.

4. Communication device in helmet: For the past two games, Gregory has had the communication in his helmet as the point person on the field who is getting the defensive call from the sideline. That job has been held by linebacker Jerod Mayo (season-ending IR) over the past five years. Gregory's smarts and leadership made him a top candidate to take over those duties. McCourty could be the next in line to do so. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower would also be a consideration.

5. Duron Harmon is likely the 'next man up:' Third-round draft choice Duron Harmon of Rutgers is the next player on the depth chart, although the Patriots have other options. Veteran cornerback Marquice Cole has spent time at the position this year in practice/training camp/spring camps and 2012 second-round pick Tavon Wilson -- who has slid deep down the depth chart -- is a long-shot option.

6. Personal protector on punt team: In addition to defense, Gregory plays an important role as the personal protector on the punt team. That's a role special-teams coach Scott O'Brien will have to fill, perhaps with Harmon.