FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Throughout Dont’a Hightower’s nine seasons in New England, the veteran linebacker said the identity of the Patriots’ defense has always been predicated on two things — being physical and stopping the run.
Both will need to be on display this week as the Patriots prepare for a Cleveland Browns offense that has the second-ranked rushing offense in the NFL in averaging 160 yards per game.
It’s unclear who will be anchoring that attack for Cleveland on Sunday with star running back Nick Chubb’s status uncertain following a positive test for the coronavirus and Kareem Hunt’s calf issue keeping him on injured reserve. Rookie running back/wide receiver Demetric Felton also tested positive for COVID-19.
If Chubb does play, Patriots inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo said he will present “probably our biggest challenge of the year.” Chubb is averaging 103 rushing yards per game, second only to Tennessee's Derrick Henry (117).
“You could just never take a play off,” Mayo said. “He’s one of these guys that he’ll go for 2 yards, 3 yards, 4 yards, and then all of a sudden busts out a 70-yard run on you. So there are no plays off when he’s in the backfield.”
Coach Bill Belichick said the potential absence of Chubb won’t change their approach.
“People are questionable. They might play. They might not play,” he said. “Nobody’s been ruled out, so we’ll be ready for whoever’s there.”
Hightower said whoever lines up for the Browns will encounter a defense that has taken pride in making it difficult for opposing offenses to move the ball on the ground.
Hightower could only watch last season after he opted out because of COVID-19 concerns and New England slumped to 26th in the league against the run, allowing 131.4 yards per game.
After being ranked as low as 24th in the NFL defending the run this season following its Week 3 loss to the Saints, New England enters Sunday’s matchup ranked 14th in league, giving up 108.9 yards per game.
Over their past five games, the Patriots have allowed just two teams to eclipse the 100-yard mark.
Hightower said since Week 1 keeping that number low has been something the defense has harped on.
“Reputation and intimidation only gets you so far,” he said. “All that stuff is cool. But at the end of the day, when it comes down to game day, it comes down to execution.”
While Hightower’s stats have been down this season (just 28 combined tackles), Mayo said he’s just as involved as he was before sitting out in 2020.
“He’s still the physical player, the good pass rusher and the guy who was able to do a bunch of different things,” Mayo said. “It’s a pleasant surprise to see him do these things, again, after taking a year off.”
Defensive lineman Davon Godchaux acknowledged their preparation is made more difficult not knowing exactly who will be carrying the ball for the Browns. Still, he said they would “bring our hard hats” either way to contend.
“We’re preparing for their starters. Whoever’s next gonna be next, but I’m still preparing for Nick Chubb,” Godchaux said. “That’s my mindset today. That’s the whole team’s mindset.”
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