FOXBOROUGH — If the game were one of those silly reality-show survivor contests in which the last person left is crowned the winner, Dont’a Hightower would be the runaway favorite.
But strength in numbers is required in football, and of the linebackers the Patriots were counting on to be major contributors this season, Hightower is just about the only one left. Jerod Mayo is out for the season. So too is Brandon Spikes, who joined Mayo on the injured reserve list Monday with a knee injury.
With the Patriots getting ready to open their postseason with a divisional-round game Saturday night against the Indianapolis Colts, that leaves the team’s rank-and-file dangerously thin at linebacker. It includes Hightower, a second-year pro from Alabama; Dane Fletcher, who’s made more of an impact this season on special teams; rookie Jamie Collins, who has no sacks, no interceptions, and no fumbles, either forced or recovered; and two seldom-used reserves in Chris White and Steve Beauharnais.
There are other key positions that have been affected by injury during a season that somehow has the Patriots two wins from the Super Bowl. Defensive line, offensive line, and tight end come to mind. But if the linebackers room has suddenly grown dark and quiet, everyone who pulls for the Patriots would probably understand why.
“There’s no point in crying about it,” Hightower said. “There’s nothing we can do about it now. It’s just get ready with the people that we have.”
If anything, Hightower knows what it’s like to play without one of his key position mates. Mayo, who led the team in tackles each of his first five seasons, went out in Week 6 with a torn pectoral muscle.
In Mayo’s absence, Hightower knew he needed to step up, as players do in such situations. The fear, looking back, was in trying to do too much. The reality, Hightower said, was that he was guilty of doing exactly that.
“Usually, whenever guys try to step up and be a vocal leader or try to do too much outside the box of what they normally do, they put themselves in an awkward position, as well as everybody else,” Hightower said.
“I’ve been there, done that. Tried to do too much. It didn’t work for me. Fell back, and everything is coming back into play.
“As long as everybody does their job, nobody has to go outside their box and be outside their comfort zone.”
Losing Mayo was tough enough; he’s a defensive captain, and while he didn’t string together highlight plays every game, he was consistent and productive. Losing Spikes is different. That leaves a gaping leadership void, and subtracts someone who was a solid run stopper, ready and willing to deliver a big hit.
Despite dealing with a knee injury for much of the season, Spikes still had 134 tackles. But it is his intangibles that will be hard to replace.
“Intimidation. Fire. He just brings that spark to the defense that a lot of people don’t,” Hightower said. “A lot of people don’t see what goes on out there on the field. Whenever we need that big play, usually everybody kind of looks to him. If somebody needs to say something, it’s usually Spikes. It’s not a captain, a 15-year vet. It’s usually him.
“Everybody else is going to have to step up. I think we’ll be fine, though.”
Hightower has played plenty this season, appearing in all 16 games and starting 14. He had seven double-digit tackle games, including three of the past four, and led the Patriots in tackles with a career-high 137.
Collins and Fletcher should stand the most to gain in the short term with Spikes out. Collins, a second-round pick last year out of Southern Mississippi, has played in every game as a rookie. Fletcher, who missed last season with a knee injury, has five starts over his four-year career, all with the Patriots.
“As far as Brandon goes, I’m not even going to speak about it,” Fletcher said. “As far as the team goes, everybody just has to step up and everybody’s role kind of increased on defense, especially in the linebacking room.”
Depending on what the Colts do, the Patriots won’t necessarily look to replace Spikes with someone like Fletcher or Collins. Spikes was good against the run but struggled in pass coverage. The chess match, as always, is forcing the opponent into vulnerable situations, playing to your strengths.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick was being complimentary earlier this week when he called Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton a “very game plan-oriented coach.” Knowing that the Patriots will be without one of their defensive leaders, you can bet Hamilton will devise ways to exploit that.
It’ll fall on others, now, to step up and step in.
“This is the playoffs now,” said Rob Ninkovich, a linebacker-turned-defensive end who had eight sacks this season. “We’re going to deal with it now — it’s just part of the game. Other guys that are in the roles, they’ve got to step up, and guys like myself, I’ve got to step up.
“Me and Chandler [Jones] have to step up and make more plays and put some of that weight on our backs. We can do that.”
Hightower’s role might not change. He’ll just be standing next to someone else.
“I guess we’re kind of thinning out, slowly but surely,” he said. “We’re fine. We still have a lot of confidence in the room. We have a lot of young guys in there who learn pretty well and we have some older guys who know what’s going on.
“There’s no names that need to be out there. It’s just the 11 people who are out there. Everybody is going to be needed. It’s just a team thing.”