With one of the Patriots' best playmaking linebackers, Dont'a Hightower, leaving last game with a knee injury - let's look to one of the players who will help fill his shoes.
Linebacker Jonathan Freeny.
Mike Petraglia of WEEI had a good write up on the unheralded Pats player last night. Here's some key takeaways.
1. Freeny has quietly had a large role in Patriots defense anyway
Due to Jamie Collins missing time this year, Freeny has seen his playing time rise in recent weeks anyway.
Starting with the game against the Redskins, Freeny’s role has risen dramatically. He played 57-of-58 snaps against Washington. Freeny played just 37-of-75 snaps in the win over the Giants. Against the Bills, his play time increased back to 75 percent (53-of-71).
Petraglia also points out that Freeny missed only four defensive snaps in last week's loss to Denver, while also playing 31 snaps on special teams. He led the team with 12 tackles and a sack.
Playing time doesn't always translate to results though. With Hightower absent, the Pats did give up their most rushing yards of the season - 179 to Denver. That of course included the game winning run by C.J. Anderson in overtime. It's hard to blame that all on Freeny, obviously, but it is something to consider.
2. Freeny is a former Dolphin and Rutgers player
Freeny was signed by the Miami Dolphins as a rookie free agent in 2011 and played for them through last season.
The Patriots signed him on March 12th, primarily to help on special teams. What may have brought him to the Pats was not only the AFC East connection, but also the Rutgers one.
Everyone knows Belichick likes his Rutgers players, Freeny is among fellow Rutgers alumni Devin McCourty, Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon on the Pats defense.
3. The coaching staff thinks very highly of him
Bill Belichick lauded Freeny's abilities on special teams this week, but also added he has all the skills as a capable defender as well.
“He has good length, good size, runs well, is tough, is a good strong run player, good tackler and has done a good job for us in the kicking game,” Belichick added. “He can blitz. He’s got good length, which is an advantage in coverage. He’s got a lot of strong points. I’m glad we have him, glad we have him.”
Defensive Coordinator Matt Patricia also lauded Freeny, saying he's a smart player who has picked up the Patriots system rather quickly.
“From a conceptual standpoint as a linebacker in our system it’s very important you understand where everybody lines up, sits, plays, how it affects the defense, the adjustments, the communication, all of those things that you have to handle from a linebacker standpoint. He’s done a good job of growing in that role throughout the year and really understanding from a confidence standpoint where you need to be, where your help is, how to use your leverage and things like that. He’s doing a great job of trying to come in and learn and improve every day.”
Jamie Collins' expected return to action this Sunday should provide a boost to the Pats without Dont'a Hightower, but Pats fans should feel slightly more at ease knowing that they have a capable and experienced backup in Jonathan Freeny.