Getting through Week 1 healthy in his first meaningful NFL action since the 2020 AFC wild card game had to have been step No. 1 for linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who returned to the Patriots this year after opting out of the 2020 season.
He largely accomplished that goal; though he tweaked his lower leg late in the game, Hightower isn’t listed on the injury report this week and has been a full participant in practice.
But the veteran linebacker isn’t thrilled with New England’s 17-16 loss to the Miami Dolphins, and he seemingly also didn’t like the way he personally played in the game.
“I pride myself on being — not the smartest guy, but definitely want to push up my awareness as far as situational awareness,” he said Thursday. “It’s coming along, but obviously I want to play a lot better. Be a little bit more impactful. “
By the numbers, Hightower had a fairly pedestrian first game back in the lineup, registering just two tackles and no other positive stats in 42 defensive snaps according to Pro Football Focus.
He also didn’t play the defense’s final three meaningful snaps on Sunday as the Patriots looked to get the ball back for one more chance to win the game, appearing to come up hobbling on a late first-down conversion by the Dolphins.
Hightower will be hoping for a better outcome in Week 2.
“It’s Week 1 and we’re still growing,” he added. “I’m not going to beat myself up about it, but obviously the more guys who play the best that they can, it helps out the team. I want to do a little bit better than that.”
He’s not the only defensive player needing to step up after the Miami loss.
The Dolphins scored touchdowns easily on their first drive of the game and later on the first drive of the second half before the Patriots defense stiffened up. Former Patriots defensive back Rodney Harrison even remarked he was “really stunned” at the “average” performance by the front seven, including Hightower, against Miami.
To get off to a better start against New York, Hightower said the defense has to “play faster” and have “better awareness” of how the Jets will call plays for Wilson.
“These first couple of games playing young quarterbacks, you know…offensive coordinators make it easier on them,” he explained. “Being able to run the ball well, making the passes easier for those guys, catch-and-runs — [The Jets] have a lot of great skill players who do that really well. We just got to come out and start faster, play harder.”
Though the Jets aren’t exactly world-beaters, they do have a talented young quarterback in Zach Wilson that the Patriots will have to contain.
“You can see why this kid had so much hype coming out of college,” Hightower said of the No. 2 overall pick. “He’s got a cannon. He stays in the pocket, takes shots…he doesn’t mind getting hit. We just have to do a good job being on him inside the pocket and outside the pocket.”
Thursday practice notes
For the second straight day, Trent Brown (calf) and Kyle Van Noy (throat) were not on the practice field when the media were allowed to watch drills.
Brown is reportedly day-to-day with his injury. However, NFL insider Ian Rapoport noted on WEEI’s Gresh and Keefe Show on Thursday that calf injuries can be “tricky” to assess and, despite not believing the injury to be serious based on his information, wouldn’t speculate on Brown’s availability Sunday.
In Brown’s absence, Yasir Durant took “first-team” reps at right tackle during the media-access portion of practice. Durant took over for Justin Herron on Sunday after Herron struggled in relief of Brown.
Nothing is yet known about Van Noy’s injury or status for Sunday.
High praise for Adrian Phillips
It wasn’t all doom and gloom defensively for the Patriots on Sunday, especially where safety Adrian Phillips was concerned.
The veteran defensive back looked like one of the best players on the field against the Dolphins, almost singlehandedly stopping a third-quarter drive with two tackles for loss.
Hightower didn’t get to play alongside Phillips in the latter’s first season in Foxborough in 2020. Now, the ninth-year Patriots linebacker has nothing but great things to say about his new teammate.
“Whenever I think of a football player, ‘AP’ is one of the first guys who really sticks out,” Hightower said Thursday. “The guy really loves football. He’s a safety that can play linebacker.
“You see a lot of hard-hitting safeties, but a lot of those hard-hitting safeties they’re playing the back end, but AP is in the box. He’s in [the box] with the 330-pound guys bench-pressing them. You can’t do anything but respect that.”
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