The Patriots lost more than their leading tackler when linebacker Jerod Mayo was placed on injured reserve this week, they lost their play-caller.
Now, in the absence of the guy who wore the defensive headset radio in his helmet, the Patriots are passing the torch to second-year linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
Hightower walked in the door more settled than the average rookie based on his experience at Alabama, but he’s still spending this week with defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and linebackers coach Pepper Johnson to be ready for the increased responsibility.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Hightower said, via Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald. “I’ve talked to Matty. I’ve talked to Pepper about it. It’s definitely something that I knew down the road, if something ever happened, I knew that I would have to step up and do it.
“I’m not nervous about it. It’s something that I’ve done before, maybe not in the NFL, but I’ve done it before. I know everybody is behind me and they support me, so that’s all I can ask for.”
The change will require Hightower to become more of an every down linebacker (after he played just 23 of 65 defensive snaps last week against the Saints), but there’s a confidence that he’s ready to be the quarterback of the defense.
“Not so much as a heavier presence as me making sure to try to fill Mayo’s shoes, because that’s something I’m not going to be able to do,” Hightower said of his role. “I can’t be Mayo. I’m Hightower. I can only do my job in ways that I feel that I should.
“I’m not going to have to go out on the boat and do something I’ve never done before. I’ve just got to keep the front-seven guys together, and hopefully those guys get my back in the back end.”
Losing Mayo and Vince Wilfork blew a huge hole in the middle of the Patriots defense, and that puts a heavy burden on Hightower to make sure they’re aligned properly and on the same page when they take the field.