Taking Stock of the New England Patriots' Injuries
Every team endures injuries every year, but few teams persevere through as many key injuries as the New England Patriots have suffered this season.
There have been times this season when the Patriots have seemingly cobbled together their roster with a MacGyver-like combination of duct tape, paper clips and empty rolls of toilet paper, but while some injured players have returned to the lineup, others are lost for the season.
There are also some injuries that the Patriots are currently dealing with, but that may not necessarily threaten the team's chances to win a second consecutive Super Bowl—at least not as long as those players find their way back to the field in time for the playoffs.
So let's take stock of all the Patriots' major injuries ahead of the playoffs.
The Patriots lost left tackle Nate Solder early enough in the season that it gave them a lot of time to figure out how to maneuver around his absence. Unfortunately, the turbulence has not stopped on the Patriots offensive line since his departure.
Initially, Marcus Cannon shifted over to the left side with Sebastian Vollmer staying on the right. Then, Cannon got injured, so Vollmer had to move over. Then, Vollmer got injured, and suddenly, the Pats had backup tackle Cameron Fleming at left tackle and center/guard Bryan Stork at right tackle.
The results have been predictable. Tom Brady has been under pressure on 34.5 percent of his dropbacks, the 11th-lowest percentage in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus, but that's despite having the second-quickest release time in the league.
Part of the problem has been that the Patriots have two rookie guards, Tre' Jackson and Shaq Mason, playing an exorbitant number of snaps (1,072 combined). But the sheer number of injuries can't be ignored. It hasn't just been the absence of Solder, but how his absence was compounded by other injuries.
With that said, the Patriots offensive line is as healthy now as it will be at any point for the rest of the season, so now is the time for it to start playing at its best.
Who would've thought back April that the Patriots would be so devastated to lose running back Dion Lewis for the season to injury?
Lewis tore his left ACL in Week 9 against the Washington Redskins, and the Patriots have been without their diamond-in-the-rough scatback ever since. Most of that role has been passed on to second-year running back James White, but the Patriots have missed Lewis' jitterbug-like quickness in the open field and his explosive playmaking potential.
New England's backfield issues were only further compounded by the season-ending injury of running back LeGarrette Blount (more on that later). The one positive is that Lewis went down early enough in the season to give the Patriots a real opportunity to evaluate their replacement options.
Since Week 9, White has posted 19 receptions for 196 yards and two touchdowns along with nine carries for 26 yards and two rushing touchdowns. That's the kind of production the Patriots need out of their third-down back, especially with all the other injuries they're facing on offense.
Over the course of the season, the Patriots have been without several of their most important offensive players, but the defense has been without one of its most important players for three games through two separate injuries.
Linebacker Dont'a Hightower missed Week 6 against the Indianapolis Colts with a rib injury and missed Weeks 13 and 14 with a sprained MCL. The Patriots gave up 120 rushing yards or more in two of those three games, just for a barometer of Hightower's importance to the defense.
Fortunately for the Patriots, Hightower has been practicing for the past two weeks, albeit in a limited capacity. Jonathan Freeny played nearly 80 percent of the snaps in Week 13, according to Pro Football Focus, as did Jerod Mayo in Week 14.
But fortunately for the Patriots, it looks like Hightower's injury isn't serious enough that it will keep him out of action for an extended period of time. He should be good to go for the playoffs.
This one hurt—figuratively and literally.
Wide receiver Julian Edelman broke a bone in his foot in Week 10 against the New York Giants. According to Albert Breer of NFL Network, via Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com, Edelman had surgery to have a screw inserted into his foot, which would keep him out six to eight weeks. That timetable would have him back in time for the playoffs.
But somehow, Edelman was back on the practice field just three weeks after that surgery. Edelman is a tough guy, so it wouldn't be surprising if he was fighting through some pain to practice, but he has looked "crisp and quick" running routes at practice, according to Jim McBride of the Boston Globe.
The Patriots do not have another receiver who duplicates Edelman's role, but wide receiver Keshawn Martin has been the closest thing in terms of an on-field role, while Danny Amendola has been given the brunt of Edelman's lost production (22 receptions, 225 yards, one touchdown in three games since Week 10).
Fortunately for the Patriots, it appears that Edelman will be ready to go in time for the postseason, one way or another. With that said, they should proceed with caution to ensure Edelman doesn't reaggravate the injury by rushing back too soon.
Fortunately for the Patriots, it appears that injury was minor, to say the least. Gronkowski returned to action in Week 14, and despite admitting he was less than 100 percent, according to Mike Reiss of ESPN.com, he was still able to put up four receptions for 87 yards and a touchdown on the night.
He's likely to be back to 100 percent by the time the playoffs roll around, and it's a good thing. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has admitted that Gronkowski is the kind of player who could have made a difference in several of the Patriots' playoff losses when the All-Pro tight end was not available due to injury. Another Gronkowski-less playoff loss would be just another reminder of how important he is.
If he's anywhere close to 100 percent, Gronkowski will play, and he'll probably have a big impact.
On its own, Dion Lewis' injury was devastating but manageable. But couple Lewis' injury with the season-ending hip injury LeGarrette Blount suffered in Week 14, and you have a recipe for a depleted Patriots backfield.
Now, the only backs left on the Patriots roster are Brandon Bolden and James White. That might explain why they signed Montee Ball off the street and onto their practice squad shortly after moving Blount to injured reserve, and why the Patriots have discussed the possibility of adding free-agent running back Steven Jackson, according to Ed Werder of ESPN.
As of right now, though, Bolden and White are the Patriots' best bet to bear the brunt of Blount's injury. Bolden got the call as the primary ball-carrier after the Patriots' top bruising back went down against the Texans, and with his extensive knowledge of the offense, he remains the Patriots' top choice.
With that said, Sunday was the first time in more than three years that Bolden had more than 15 carries in a game. It remains to be seen whether he can be consistent in a full-time role. The Patriots will find out on their own soon enough.
Think about all the changes the Patriots secondary has been through over the past 12 months, with the losses of Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington ushering in a brand new wave of cornerbacks for the Patriots. Now think about the constant in that group: Devin McCourty, the man responsible for the bulk of the communication in coverage.
Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan have played well, but McCourty's communication and his ability to cover from sideline to sideline have helped the Patriots defense to not miss a beat despite the major changes. Now, the Patriots will have to see what life without McCourty will be like for a few weeks.
According to Adam Caplan of ESPN, McCourty suffered a high-ankle sprain against the Texans in Week 14. McCourty did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday, which does not bode well for his availability in Week 15. The Patriots might be better off keeping McCourty on the shelf until the end of the regular season to ensure he's as close to 100 percent as he can be for the playoffs.
In the meantime, third-year safety Duron Harmon should take McCourty's spot as the free safety. Harmon has played a part-time role on defense this year as an extra safety in nickel packages, but he has played very well and is deserving of a shot at a full-time job on defense.
The Patriots' front seven has been one of its greatest and most underrated strengths this season. In the middle of that group has been Dominique Easley, putting up strong under-the-radar numbers to help the Patriots pass rush generate pressure on quarterbacks.
But after Easley suffered a thigh injury against the Texans in Week 14, the Patriots must look elsewhere for their interior pass-rushing presence.
It's a shame, too, because Easley's rookie season was mostly lost due to injury as well, but the former first-round pick fought back in his second year and was having a big impact. According to Pro Football Focus, he had 24 hurries, eight hits and three sacks on the season, making him the NFL's most productive pass-rushing defensive tackle on a per-snap basis.
Defensive tackles Malcom Brown, Alan Branch and Akiem Hicks could be asked to fill the void. Sealver Siliga has been a healthy scratch for two of the past four games, but perhaps he'll find his way back onto the game-day roster with the loss of Easley.
With that said, none of those four players provide the same kind of explosive athleticism that Easley does, so it will be hard to replace his production in the Patriots defense.