Patriots must find backup plan for Dont'a Hightower
USA Today Sports
It was midway through the third quarter of the Patriots' 2017 season opener. New England was leading 27-21 when middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower left the game with a knee injury. The Chiefs went on to score a whopping 21 points in the fourth quarter to claim a 27-21 lead. After saving two Super Bowls for the Pats, Hightower's importance to the defense was no secret. However, the difference in New England's defense play before and after his injury was painfully obvious--and it only reinforced the Patriots' need for a decent backup to Hightower, both in the middle and on the edge.
To be fair, that effect was exaggerated on Thursday night thanks to the new acquisitions to the Pats defense. Without his captain in the middle, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia was forced to play Cassius Marsh, acquired from the Seahawks over the weekend, in his stead. Though Marsh flashed his athletic ability--the reason the Pats gave Seattle fifth- and seventh-round picks to get him--he forced Patricia to shrink the playbook to a minuscule fraction of its full size. That simplified the coverage looks for Chiefs QB Alex Smith and helped fuel Kansas City's late explosion.
But even though Marsh won't be a mental liability as the season progresses, it doesn't mean he can just slide in as Hightower's backup. The former Seahawks can rush the passer off the edge like Hightower but he lacks the coverage abilities of the Alabama product (a fact that was quickly proven when rookie Kareem Hunt burned him for a 78-yard TD catch). While linebacker Shea McClellin could help fill that void when he returns from IR in Week 8, that still leaves a sizable gap in the middle of the D for half the year.
Free-agent pickup David Harris is more of a run-stopper at this point in his career. Ditto for second-year man Elandon Roberts, who was one of the team's more effective 'backers up front but struggled when left in coverage. Former second-rounder Kyle Van Noy might be able to do the job--the only problem is, he's starting as it is at outside linebacker. Unless Patricia opts to run more nickel coverages and bring safety Jordan Richards into the box in a hybrid role (as he did in certain scenarios after Hightower's injury), the Pats could be staring down a massive defensive problem for seven more weeks.