New England Patriots: Dont'a Hightower

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Part of what made linebacker Dont'a Hightower an intriguing prospect coming out of the University of Alabama in 2012 was his versatility. He was a hard-hitting linebacker on early downs and then rushed as an end in sub packages.

[+] EnlargeDont'a Hightower
Mike Reiss, ESPNBoston.com
Entering his third NFL season with the New England Patriots, Hightower has not been tapped as a pass-rusher in sub packages, but he feels it would be an area in which he could excel.

"Most definitely. Third down, obviously, I'll just put it out there, I would much rather rush or blitz than to cover -- zone, man or whatever," Hightower told reporters Thursday at Gillette Stadium during a break in the team's voluntary offseason program.

"Third down is a fun down whether you're covering or whatever you're doing, because you can do different kinds of things and come at the quarterback all kinds of different ways. So as long as I'm able to be on the field on third down, or whatever they ask me to do, I'm more than willing to do it."

When Hightower has been on the field in sub over the last two seasons, it's mostly been in a coverage-type role. He's had some success (e.g. win over the Steelers in 2013), but also some obvious struggles, in part because it's unusual seeing a 270-pound linebacker chasing running backs and tight ends down the field.

With 2013 top draft pick Jamie Collins emerging late last season, Jerod Mayo's return to health, and the Patriots with some questions at defensive end behind starters Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, one in-house option for the Patriots to explore is using Hightower closer to the line of scrimmage in sub.

He smiled when the possibility was brought up by a reporter Thursday.

"That might be the case this year, but we have a lot of talented guys out there," he said. "That's up to the coaching staff, where they want to move people around and the scheme they might have or whatever. Again, if that's what they want me to do, or they ask me if I want to do it, of course. But it will definitely be a Bill Belichick thing.”

Hightower, who spent most of the three months after the loss in the AFC title game back home in Tennessee, said he plans to take part fully in the team's offseason program, then will probably train in Arizona (where he worked out prior to the 2012 combine) from mid-June to mid-July.

Chandler Jones moves up in re-draft

April, 18, 2014
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If the 2012 draft was held today, the Patriots wouldn't be selecting defensive end Chandler Jones. The reason: He wouldn't be available.

At least that's the way former scout and current NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks sees it.

Jones
Jones
Brooks has been going through past drafts and "re-drafting" as a way to determine which teams hit on their picks and which teams would be better off with a "re-do." In his 2012 analysis, Brooks bumps Jones up from the 21st pick to the 15th overall to the Seahawks (who had actually selected Bruce Irvin that year).

"Irvin flashed pass-rush skills during his rookie season, but Jones is a superior player on the edge," Brooks writes. "More important, he is a natural defensive end capable of staying on the field in every situation."

Brooks also sees the Patriots doing the same thing with the 25th overall pick and selecting linebacker Dont'a Hightower.

"Hightower has been a great fit in Bill Belichick's defense -- a big-bodied, versatile second-level defender with rush skills," Brooks writes.

The Patriots seem to be happy with both Jones and Hightower. It's also interesting to consider how Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith (29th overall, Vikings) might have fit here in New England.

In other "re-do's", Brooks gives the Patriots running back Matt Forte over linebacker Jerod Mayo in 2008 (Mayo goes three picks later at No. 13), while running back Brandon Jacobs gets the nod in 2005 at No. 32 because guard Logan Mankins went earlier at No. 23 to Oakland.

Clayborn/Morgan double dip rates highly

April, 7, 2014
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In a piece on SportsonEarth.com, Mike Tanier looks at the best all-time "double dips" in the first round of the NFL draft.

When a team hits on two first-round picks in the same year, it can be a franchise-altering turn of events. The New England Patriots have had multiple first-round selections twice in Bill Belichick's tenure, with the combination of defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and tight end Benjamin Watson in 2004, and the duo of defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower in 2012.

But it was a different Patriots "double dip" that registered on Tanier's top 10 list -- the 1977 duo of cornerback Raymond Clayborn and receiver Stanley Morgan.

"Morgan and Clayborn helped the Patriots shake the perennial doormat status they held from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s and were veteran leaders on the 1985 AFC Championship team," Tanier writes in ranking them sixth. "Not bad for a pair of converted running backs."

Clayborn's candidacy for the Patriots Hall of Fame was a hot topic last week when the nomination committee met to narrow down this year's finalists, so Tanier's timing is impeccable with a fun read that also includes another Patriots twist.

The No. 8 all-time double dip -- the 49ers' tandem of linebacker Patrick Willis and left tackle Joe Staley -- came as a result of the Patriots trading their late first-rounder to San Francisco.

Leftovers from weekly Pats chat

April, 4, 2014
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A few leftovers from our weekly New England Patriots chat:

Evan (NJ): Hi Mike, in the AFC Championship Game last year, our pass rush was nearly nonexistent. I think we definitely need to sign a strong pass rusher to give Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich some relief. Do you see the draft or free agency as being the better option?

Evan, I do think we'll see an addition at defensive end behind Jones and Ninkovich, as the team has explored veteran Will Smith as one possibility. But another point to consider is how a pass rush comes from more places than just the defensive end spot. A better interior push will also be a factor and the team should upgrade in that area if Armond Armstead emerges as a contributor. I could also see Jamie Collins being more of a factor in this area. Better coverage also helps the rush and the Patriots look pretty solid in the secondary right now.

James (England): If, as you suggested, linebacker Ryan Shazier is an option in the first round, do you project him as playing inside or outside?

James, I think Shazier is best suited off the line, so it would depend on what defense the team is in. Part of my thinking with Shazier is that 70 percent of defense is played in sub anyway and he could ultimately be a big part of that. Also, there is a pretty notable dropoff after the top three linebackers of Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins and more quality depth is needed.

Joe (Waltham): Mike, do you think the Patriots draft a QB in this draft? Obviously the visits of Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater were nothing more than educating themselves more on the draft board, but if someone like AJ McCarron falls to the bottom of the 2nd or even the 3rd, do you think they consider it?

Yes, Joe, I think that is a distinct possibility. A late second-round pick seems a bit rich to me for a quarterback but I think anything after that is in play. Just as Ryan Mallett was a third-round pick in 2011, it wouldn't surprise me if the team picked a quarterback that early this year if the right prospect is there (e.g. Pittsburgh's Tom Savage).

Earl (Marlborough, Mass.): I thought that Will Svitek filled in pretty admirably for injuries early on in the season, and he has versatility. What is his likelihood of return as depth on OL?

Earl, Svitek helped the Patriots through an early stretch of injuries in the preseason but by the end of the season, it was notable to me that rookie Josh Kline was thrust into action over him. Part of that could have been due to Svitek battling an injury. My sense is that the plan would be to turn that guard position over to a younger (less expensive) player like Kline or Chris Barker, knowing that the team goes three deep at tackle with Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon.

Carlos (Maine): Mike, why is it just assumed that Ryan Mallett is gone next year?

Carlos, Mallett enters the final year of his contract in 2014 and thus is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent at this time next year. With Tom Brady entrenched as the starter here, and signed through 2017, it makes sense to think that Mallett will likely want to pursue a better chance to start elsewhere. The door should never be slammed shut on Mallett's return, but I'd think the odds wouldn't favor it at this point.

Weekly Patriots mail is delivered

December, 24, 2013
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Every Tuesday on ESPNBoston.com, questions from Patriots followers are answered as part of a weekly mailbag. This week's mailbag has been posted and includes the following topics:

1. Defining the winning formula for the Patriots as they look ahead to the playoffs.

2. How the Patriots might approach the season finale from a personnel perspective.

3. How important is a first-round playoff bye?

4. Closer look at linebacker Dont'a Hightower's strong game against the Ravens.

5. Considerations for Bill Belichick (Coach of the Year) and Tom Brady (MVP) for postseason awards.

6. Big-picture view on rookie contributions.

7. When referees play a large role in the flow of the game.

Sharing Patriots halftime thoughts

December, 22, 2013
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BALTIMORE -- Sharing some halftime thoughts of the New England Patriots' game against the Ravens (New England leads 17-0):

One of Patriots' best halves of the season: This has been, across the board, some of the best football the Patriots have played this season. All three phases are getting it done. On offense, a commitment to the ground game has stood out. On defense, the turnovers are back. And the special teams coverage has been outstanding, sparked by captain Matthew Slater. For the Ravens, quarterback Joe Flacco doesn't look completely comfortable.

Replay review critical for Patriots: Danny Amendola's late second-quarter fumble was overturned on replay, which was crucial for the Patriots because it could have been a momentum-swinging turn of events -- the Ravens getting the ball on a short field and then at the start of the third quarter. Turnovers are such a big part of the action, as we saw in the first quarter for the Patriots (Logan Ryan interception sets up the second touchdown).

Red-zone struggles corrected: One of the big storylines entering the game was the Patriots' red-zone performance (1 of 4 vs. Miami). They are 2 of 2 today, with a power running game (LeGarrette Blount) and then a well-designed pass play (Shane Vereen) the successful formula.

A lot of penalties: Ron Winter's crew has been busy tonight. It's always difficult to tell while watching live if all the calls are warranted, but our general preference are games with fewer flags. It seemed like a long half because of it, with little flow. This reminds us of the 2009 Patriots-Ravens regular-season game, in Foxborough, in which Winter was also the referee.

Injuries to monitor: Vereen left in the second quarter with a groin injury and has not returned. Brandon Bolden has assumed his role as the top "passing back." ... Safety Steve Gregory left in the second quarter with what looked like a right knee/leg injury. It looked signficant, and rookie Duron Harmon took his place. ... Linebacker Dont'a Hightower left the game briefly in the second quarter, but returned.

Ravens get the ball: The Patriots had called heads at the opening toss and it came up tails, with the Ravens deferring the choice to the second half. So the Ravens get the ball to open the second half.

Leftovers from coaches calls

December, 17, 2013
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Every Tuesday, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia hold conference calls with reporters.

Some highlights:

1. Hightower, at 270 pounds, in pass coverage: Patricia was asked about linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who was in coverage on the Dolphins' game-winning touchdown pass. Hightower has had some ups and downs in that area this season, but Patricia was positive in his assessment. "He's obviously a guy who’s got a great skill set. He’s a big guy, can move well, and is a guy that maybe behind the scenes does a lot more than sometimes shows up in a production standpoint," he said, before adding that Hightower, like all players, remains focused on improvement. Patricia noted that Hightower has also taken on more responsibility within the defense and does "a lot of things out there on the field for us from a communication standpoint and an adjustment standpoint."

2. Siliga 'quietly' showing up on the line: Second-year defensive tackle Sealver Siliga has started the last two games, and Patricia was asked about what it's been like to work with him. "He’s a real quiet guy, but an extremely hard worker," he answered. "He sits in the classroom and gets all the information and asks good questions. ... He’s a strong guy, he’s a big guy, he’s got good size about him, so [he’s] somebody that we try to get in the game to hold the point and be strong at the line of scrimmage and play with good technique."

3. Belichick's snapshot view of the Ravens: All focus is on the Ravens, and Belichick opened his remarks by sharing his general view of the team. "Strong in all three areas of the game. They have real good specialists, good return game, good kicker, good punter – really solid there. Defensively, I think they’ve really seemed to improve a little bit each week and played particularly well the last few weeks. Offensively, it’s an explosive group with a good quarterback, good running backs, tight ends are good, [Dennis] Pitta is back. The receivers are big and they’re good. This is a solid football team that’s playing really well. I’ve spent most of the time watching their more recent games. They had some setbacks early but lately they’ve been very impressive, and that will be a big challenge for us this week down there."

Ups and downs for the Patriots

December, 1, 2013
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HOUSTON -- A look at New England Patriots players whose performance was "up" against the Houston Texans, and those at the opposite end of the spectrum:

Up

James Develin: Fullback's 1-yard touchdown run is reflective of his career path from Brown University to the Arena Football League, the United Football League, an NFL practice squad and then an NFL roster -- a gutsy never-give-up effort.

Julian Edelman: Comes up big for the second week in a row and is currently the team's most reliable and consistent receiver.

Stephen Gostkowski: Two field goals from 53 yards in the second half are clutch.

Rob Gronkowski: Tight end continues to round into form and is a big factor in the passing game with another day over 100 yards receiving.

Offensive line: Solid protection for quarterback Tom Brady for much of the day as J.J. Watt isn't heard from often.

Down

Kyle Arrington: Cornerback is in coverage on a 66-yard reception by receiver DeAndre Hopkins in the fourth quarter. Arrington was excellent in the slot last week against Wes Welker and the Broncos, but his struggles against Houston came on the outside.

Dont'a Hightower/run defense: Linebacker is one of several defenders to struggle getting off blocks and making tackles, as the Texans have success on the ground.

Kickoff coverage: Opening return of the game for the Texans got them started on the right foot.

Checking in with Dont'a Hightower

November, 28, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One of the unusual aspects of the New England Patriots' 34-31 overtime victory over the Denver Broncos was the in-game disappearance of second-year linebacker Dont'a Hightower. He played the first 33 defensive snaps and that was it.

Hightower
Hightower appeared to be dealing with some type of physical ailment during the game, but it wasn't enough to land him on the injury report as he participated in full on Wednesday in the first practice of the new week.

"The best way to put it was that it's how things worked out -- me coming out for a series and I don't want to go too far into it," he said."But things happened during the game, I came out a series, and then the way things were working I didn't really have to go back in. Dane [Fletcher] finished the game and played a helluva game."

Fletcher added a bit more speed to the lineup in playing over Hightower, who on one of his final plays had trouble with a screen pass on third-and-20 that the Broncos converted. Hightower was pushed out of the way rather easily.

"I tried to make a play, setting up the inside guy to hit the outside guy, but the inside guy hit me and obviously threw me out. I messed up on that, misread it a little bit. Just tried to make a different play on it and split the defenders, but didn't get it done," Hightower said. "It was a really good play [by the offense]. More or less I just have to be able to take out both of those guys so hopefully my teammates can rally up and get there [and] just definitely trying to alert everyone else prior to the play."

Hightower has now played 72.4 percent of the defensive snaps this season, which is up from 51 percent last year. With Jerod Mayo lost to a season-ending injury on Oct. 13, he says, the "burden has been pushed on a lot of guys with all the injuries going around, and guys having to step up and things they haven't been doing."

For Hightower, that has sometimes meant leading the huddle and showing younger players the ropes.

"In the long run, and the reason why I love New England, I could care less about making the big play. I could care less about making the strip sack or the fumble, or anything," he said. "All those things are good, but if I can put my teammates in position to make that play, that's fine with me. I don't have to be the star. I can be the guy that everybody says ‘whatever' about, but as long as we get the W and the job done, I don't care either way."

Dobson (foot) out; seven Pats limited

November, 27, 2013
11/27/13
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New England Patriots rookie receiver Aaron Dobson, who played just two snaps in the second half of Sunday’s win over Denver, has a foot injury, according to the team’s injury report. Dobson didn’t practice Wednesday.

Elsewhere, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga weren’t listed on the injury report despite not playing in the second half Sunday. So their absence seemed to be less health-related and more a result of performance.

As the report shows, the Patriots are banged up in the secondary, with five players limited in practice.


Picked-up pieces from 1st-quarter review

November, 25, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Picked-up pieces from the first quarter of the New England Patriots' 34-31 overtime win over the Denver Broncos:

1. Some of the Patriots’ struggles defending the run were evident from the first play -- a 12-yard Knowshon Moreno run up the middle. Rookie defensive tackle Joe Vellano was double teamed by right tackle Orlando Franklin and right guard Louis Vasquez, while fellow rookie Chris Jones was handled by center Manny Ramirez, with a little help from left guard Zane Beadles. It didn’t help that linebacker Dont'a Hightower didn’t seem to fill his gap decisively. The Broncos won these battles consistently. Vellano and Jones play with great effort and are giving the Patriots everything they have. They were just outplayed at times, which created big running lanes for Moreno.

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesPatriots head coach Bill Belichick says there are different types of fumbles, citing some are just football plays that happen and others are a result of poor technique or skills.
2. Strong work by top Patriots draft pick Jamie Collins, who opened the game with three tackles on the game’s first five plays. Collins was part of one version of the 4-2-5 nickel, playing 22 snaps replacing Brandon Spikes at linebacker in some sub situations. In a spread passing game, it seemed the coaching staff liked Collins’ athleticism in the matchup. “I thought he was active,” Bill Belichick said of Collins. “He was in on a number of plays. It looked like the last third-down play, he was in on breaking up passes, jamming receivers, had a couple big tackles for us there.”

3. One of the topics that has come up in weekly mailbags and chats is if left guard Logan Mankins might be slipping. The Patriots’ first running play (Stevan Ridley for 7 yards) is a good example of why the answer is no. While Mankins leads the Patriots with seven penalties and has had some protection breakdowns, he still showcases the athleticism to pull, combined with impressive power that was evidenced as he drove linebacker Danny Trevathan on to his back.

4. Bill Belichick talked about the difference between fumbles that are good football plays and those that could be avoided with better discipline. We'd put Ridley's in the latter category. As he attempts to spin, he is upright and opens himself up while exposing the football to contact. Some credit obviously goes to Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard for creating the fumble, and it appeared right guard Dan Connolly might have been late coming off his initial block in a failed attempt to deter Woodyard, but with better fundamentals Ridley should be able to hold on to that ball.

5. On LeGarrette Blount's fumble, we'd put it closer to the "football plays" category as Blount seemed initially dazed by safety Duke Ihenacho’s helmet making contact with his helmet (not a penalty because he isn't a defenseless player). Blount was also attempting to protect the ball as Ihenacho arrived, which from our view, showed more awareness than Ridley's miscue.

6. Explosive rush by Broncos defensive end Von Miller to get around left tackle Nate Solder to the outside to create the Tom Brady strip sack with 9:30 remaining in the first quarter. Miller does that to a lot of left tackles. We'd imagine offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia would also point to Solder’s technique breakdown on the play, as the third-year pro didn’t get his hands on Miller early enough in the rush, which allowed Miller to dictate as Solder found himself in a compromising position.

7. Right defensive end Chandler Jones, who now has 10.5 sacks, was one of the Patriots' top defenders. He continues to evolve, mostly playing forward but also showing athleticism to drop into coverage at times. He plays out of both a 3- and 2-point stance and his sack on second-and-goal was a big play that ultimately contributed to a red-zone hold. We don’t want to undersell the strong 1-on-1 rush against left tackle Chris Clark, but there was also an important coverage element to the play as Kyle Arrington played outside leverage and took away Wes Welker, who appeared to be Peyton Manning's first read as the middle receiver in a three-wide alignment to the left. Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard also had solid man coverage on that side. Specific to Arrington, his work in the slot against Welker warrants mention as similar to Mankins, he’s been subject to criticism in some mailbags and chats this year. The feeling here is that Arrington is a solid slot corner. When asked to do more, that's when some struggles arise.

8. On the second sack of Brady, the Broncos came with a six-man blitz and it looked like a case of the Broncos having the perfect call for the play. Connolly was pulling on the play as part of creating some play-action, but the issue was that defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson was too quick to shoot the gap vacated by Connolly before center Ryan Wendell could get over to him. Easy sack. NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth quickly pointed out that it was a similar protection that resulted in a sack in last Monday's game against the Panthers and wondered the Patriots might remove the protection from the playbook. That could be the case. At the same time, we wondered if it was just a result of the Broncos matching a perfect call against it.

Progress report: Pats' second-year players

November, 7, 2013
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New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has talked at length in the past about the critical importance of the offseason for players entering their second NFL season. It often turns out that players experience their biggest jump from one year to the next from their rookie to sophomore seasons.

We saw it with Stevan Ridley in 2012, as he became the Patriots' workhorse back and one of the NFL's top rushers.

With the regular season more than halfway over and the bye week upon us, below is a look at how the Patriots' second-year players have performed.

Defensive end Chandler Jones: When Belichick talked about the development of second-year players, it was likely exactly with what we've seen from Jones in mind. The team's top pick in 2012 has built off his six-sack rookie season to become one of the best pass-rushers in the AFC, totaling 8.5 already. He's firmly entrenched himself as a cornerstone of the defense.

Linebacker Dont'a Hightower: Another first-round pick in 2012, Hightower is also a key defender for the Patriots. He's taken on a bigger leadership role this season from an on-field communication standpoint, particularly with Jerod Mayo out for the season. Hightower is an able run defender, though his speed limitation has shown up in pass coverage.

Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard: Dennard made the leap into the starting lineup toward the end of his rookie season and has not looked back since. He's developed into a dependable perimeter corner that has shined through the season's first half. He projects as a long-term starter if he stays on his current arc of progression.

Running back Brandon Bolden: Bolden has figured significantly into the Patriots' running back rotation, often serving as the back within the up-tempo offense. He's played a less prominent role on special teams this season than he did last year, and it will be interesting to see how his offensive role changes when Shane Vereen returns.

Safety Tavon Wilson: The second-round pick out of Illinois in 2012 started off his NFL career as a regular part of the Patriots' defense. He has since become largely a special-teams player. He missed time earlier this season due to a hamstring issue, but he's become among the team's top core special teamers.

Safety Nate Ebner: Ebner was drafted with the idea in mind of him becoming an impactful special teams player, and he's steadily contributed on coverage units. He has not had a defensive role this season.

Defensive tackle Marcus Forston: After starting the year on the practice squad, Forston was promoted to the active roster amidst injuries to Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. He's yet to play much, however, as the team has leaned more on rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones.

Defensive end Jake Bequette: There was hope that a full offseason would propel Bequette onto the radar this season, but that has not yet been the case. The Patriots turned to rookie defensive end Michael Buchanan as their third rusher earlier in the year before more recently signing veteran Andre Carter. Bequette is effectively the fifth defensive end on the roster.

Quick-hit thoughts after first quarter

October, 27, 2013
10/27/13
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- After 15 minutes of play, the New England Patriots trail the Miami Dolphins, 7-0. Passing along quick-hit notes and observations from the first quarter.

1. Brady picked on first throw. On his first throw of the afternoon, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was intercepted by Dolphins cornerback Dimitri Patterson. It wasn't the start Brady was looking for, as it gave the Dolphins the ball at the Patriots' 40-yard line. The turnover was particularly costly, as it led to a Miami touchdown just minutes later.

2. Blount the lead back early. Despite scores in each of the past two games, Stevan Ridley was not the starter in the Patriots' backfield, as LeGarrette Blount earned the start. Ridley didn't play a single snap in the first quarter.

3. Offensive struggles persist. Two-plus drives, and just about nothing for the Patriots' offense. The offense looked out of sync early, and although he didn't have many opportunities, it's possible that Brady is working through discomfort on his right hand. Though it was not listed on the injury report, Brady did have two fingers taped together during a photo on Saturday.

4. Gregory wearing green dot. Safety Steve Gregory is wearing the green dot on the back of his helmet, a sign that he is the on-field point of communication for the coaches. He's responsible for making the defensive calls in the huddle, a previous duty for Jerod Mayo. Last week, Dont'a Hightower wore the green dot.

5. Penalty box. No Patriots were flagged for penalties during the first quarter.

Ups and downs for the Patriots

October, 20, 2013
10/20/13
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- At an initial glance, a look at the New England Patriots players whose performance was "up" in Sunday's game against the New York Jets, and those at the opposite end of the spectrum:

Up
Stephen Gostkowski -- Kicker hits from 44 yards with 16 seconds remaining to tie the game at 27.

Chandler Jones -- Right defensive end creates pressure while working against D'Brickashaw Ferguson.

Devin McCourty -- Safety breaks up a pass in the end zone and draws an offensive pass interference penalty in the end zone.

Down
Kyle Arrington -- Cornerback struggles early against receiver Jeremy Kerley and is replaced by Marquice Cole.

Tom Brady -- Quarterback throws a pick-six early in the third quarter that helps the Jets, trailing 21-10 at the time, get back into the game.

Dont'a Hightower -- Linebacker appears to struggle in coverage.

Nate Solder/offensive line -- Breakdowns in protection, highlighted at left tackle, contribute to the Jets taking control of the game in the third quarter.

Hightower set to lead defensive huddle

October, 16, 2013
10/16/13
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Second-year linebacker Dont'a Hightower said Wednesday that he will wear the communication device in his helmet and lead the New England Patriots' defensive huddle, an important job previously held by linebacker Jerod Mayo, who was placed on season-ending injured reserve.

Hightower
As part of game-planning preparations for Sunday's road game against the New York Jets, Hightower has met with defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and linebackers coach Pepper Johnson about the added responsibility.

"I'm looking forward to it. It's definitely something that I knew down the road, if something ever happened, that I would have to step up and do it," he said. "I'm not nervous about it. It's something I've done before, maybe not in the NFL [but] I know everyone is behind me and they support me. That's all I can ask for.”

As for the specifics of the responsibility, Hightower said it starts with preparation and knowing "what everyone has to do, what position they have to be in.”

"Basically just being the quarterback of the defense," he said, later adding that he alone can't fill Mayo's shoes: "That's something I'm not going to be able to do. I can't be Mayo. I'm Hightower. I can only do my job, in the ways like I feel I should. There's all kinds of leadership, so I'm not going to have to rock the boat and do something that I've never done before. I just have to keep the front-seven guys together and then hopefully those guys have my back on the back end."

Overall, Hightower repeated that he still sees plenty of leadership on the defense, mentioning players like linebacker Brandon Spikes, defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones and defensive backs Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory, among others.

Still, the injuries have cut deep.

"We took a bunch of key guys falling down, with Vince [Wilfork] and Mayo and TK [Tommy Kelly] and all the other guys that are banged up," he said. "It's football and it's all expected -- one guy down and another guy comes up. I feel like everybody that's here is going to help us win; that's why they are here. As long as we communicate and execute the game plan, we'll be fine.”

As for who replaces Mayo as the weakside linebacker in the base 4-3 defense, the top candidates are second-round draft choice Jamie Collins (52nd overall) and four-year veteran Dane Fletcher.

Hightower on Collins: "He's a smart dude, very athletic, probably one of the most athletic guys on the team. He knows the playbook, he's always quick to answer a question. I'm sure whatever they ask him to do, or anybody else in that linebacker room to do, I'm pretty sure they'll be ready to stand up and go.”

Hightower on Fletcher: "He's definitely a vet guy, an older guy. He actually helps out a lot when we're watching film and giving out hints and checks and stuff like that. Either way, Dane or Jamie, whoever goes out there, I'm comfortable with both of them out there on the field.”

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