WHAT WAS THE BIGGEST SURPRISE?
The biggest strength of the New England Patriots defense has been their linebackers this season. Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower have emerged as multi-threat budding superstars who contribute on all three downs. Both are excellent blitzers and Collins is the athletic freak who can cover tight ends and running backs while Hightower is the intelligent 270 lb linebacker who provides the thump in stopping the running game.
Behind them, New England has veteran Jerod Mayo who was slowly returning to form after two seasons were ended by injury after just six games. New England found athletic linebacker Jonathan Freeny from the scrap heap and utilized him to great effectiveness as the third linebacker. In addition, the Patriots added former second round draft pick Jon Bostic from the Chicago Bears adding another layer of depth.
More from Patriots News
- Patriots get steal of the night with perfect first round pick
- What trading Mac Jones during the draft can do for the Patriots
- Early round Patriots draft picks you’ll hate now, love later
- Musket Fire Roundup: Our own final predictions for round 1
- Breaking down the Patriots’ options in the 2023 NFL Draft
So imagine the surprise of seeing special teams linebackers Freeny, Dekoda Watson and Darius Fleming playing at linebacker in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. Fleming and Watson were on and off the roster all season but the Patriots had to turn to them late in the game when injuries struck the linebacking group.
Dont’a Hightower was questionable with a knee injury coming into the game as he was in and out of the lineup coming down the stretch. Hightower tweaked his knee during the game and was in and out throughout the second half. Jamie Collins injured his back (which is now being termed an oblique strain) during the third quarter and did not return. With Jerod Mayo stepping in at linebacker it was not long before he was on the sidelines being looked at by the training staff and out for the game.
The Patriots needed depth at defensive end as well as Watson was on due to Chandler Jones being injured. The Patriots had backup defensive end Geneo Grissom and backup linebacker Jon Bostic as healthy scratches due to the value of Fleming and Watson on special teams: Watson played 21 snaps on special teams and Fleming played 16.
During the game, the Patriots saw Watson on the field with the defense rushing the passer on 13 snaps. Fleming was at linebacker for 10 snaps. Freeny–who also had struggled with injuries in the second half of the season and was in a cast during the week–played 35 snaps at linebacker with the defense and 14 special teams snaps.
Dekoda Watson, Darius Fleming, and Jonathan Freeny are three Patriots players who are unknown to the casual fan. However, on Saturday these three linebackers stepped in and played a key role in the victory.
Next: THE BIGGEST HEAD-SCRATCHER