Dont’a Hightower is integral to the Patriots’ run defense. (Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Another week, another injury for the Patriots.
Sunday night against the Broncos there were two major injuries — tight end Rob Gronkowski and linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
The news appears good for Gronkowski, as it doesn’t look like he will be out long-term. For Hightower, the news is good as in he likely didn’t suffer a major injury in a reported sprained MCL, but it is unclear exactly how much time he will be out.
Hightower has emerged as one of, if not the most important member of the Patriots defense in his fourth year in the league.
Following Sunday’s games, the Patriots have the tied for 10th-best defense against the run in the NFL. Going into the game the Patriots had the second-best run defense in the league, but allowing a season-high 179 yards to the Broncos was a huge set back.
A major part of the poor run defense was the loss of Hightower, who went down with the knee injury early in the second quarter.
Against the Broncos with Hightower on the field, the Patriots allowed 46 yards on 16 carries (2.88 yards per carry), but once he left the game, the Patriots allowed 133 yards on 16 carries (8.31 yards per carry).
“I think we missed a couple of opportunities and we didn’t make the plays when we needed to,” cornerback Malcolm Butler said to reporters. “We made plays, but we just didn’t make the plays when they counted most. We have to learn from it and keep moving forward, it’s plain and simple.”
The importance of Hightower goes beyond the Broncos game. The Alabama product missed the Colts game earlier in the year with a rib injury, which was suffered in the game prior in Dallas.
Against the Colts, the Patriots allowed 120 yards on 22 carries (the Colts currently are ranked 26th in rushing).
Hightower went down in the first quarter against the Cowboys and the impact was similar to Sunday night. With Hightower against Dallas, the Patriots allowed 14 yards on five carries and without him the Patriots allowed 86 yards on 19 carries.
For the season, Hightower’s impact is huge. In total, in games Hightower plays in full, the Patriots are allowing 3.58 yards per carry and then on the plays he missed in the Cowboys, Broncos and Colts games, the Patriots are allowing 5.95 yards per carry — a 2.37-yard average difference.
With the Patriots dropping like flies on the offensive side of the ball, the defense is going to be asked to do even more and getting Hightower back on the field as soon as possible is a major component in doing that.
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