Hightower on way back

Ex­pected to face Pan­thers

Boston Herald - - BASEBALL SCOREBOARD - By JEFF HOWE Twit­ter: @jeff­phowe

FOXBORO — Line­backer Dont’a Hightower’s time on the shelf is ex­pected to come to an end.

Hightower, who sprained his knee in the sea­son opener, is in the Pa­tri­ots’ game plan for Sun­day’s visit by the Pan­thers, ac- cord­ing to a source. He is ex­pected to re­turn to the lineup bar­ring an un­fore­seen set­back.

The two-time cap­tain crum­pled to the turf in the third quar­ter of the Pats’ open­ing loss to the Chiefs, as two play­ers fell on the out­side of his knee. He wasn’t able to re­turn to the game, missed a week of prac­tice and each of the en­su­ing vic­to­ries against the Saints and Tex­ans.

The Pa­tri­ots have had no in­ten­tions of rush­ing Hightower back to the field, so this devel­op­ment means the knee is healthy enough for ac­tion. Hightower’s re­turn can’t be un­der­stated, as the Pa­tri­ots rank last in the NFL in points, to­tal yards and pass­ing yards al­lowed.

Now, the ques­tion is where Hightower will line up. He has worked al­most ex­clu­sively on the de­fen­sive edge since de­but­ing at train­ing camp, but the Pa­tri­ots have been plagued by com­mu­ni­ca­tion break­downs in all three reg­u­larsea­son games. It’s worth won­der­ing if Hightower will take over the play­call­ing du­ties and re­turn to a tra­di­tional in­side line­backer role.

With Hightower back in the mix, the Pa­tri­ots now have the lux­ury of de­cid­ing where to de­ploy their most ver­sa­tile front-seven weapon.

Run­ning man

Quar­ter­back Jimmy Garop­polo is bound by phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions, but the scout team of­fense must go on re­gard­less.

Garop­polo has al­ways drawn high praise for his abil­ity to mimic op­pos­ing quar­ter­backs, and he is at the tail end of a chal­leng­ing stretch of hav­ing to show­case De­shaun Wat­son and Cam New­ton. Garop­polo can move, but not like those two guys.

“I try to be as fast as I can, as ath­letic as I can,” Garop­polo said. “Those guys are great ath­letes, and they can throw the ball re­ally well. It tests me and my ath­letic abil­ity, but I think I did a good job this week.”

Wat­son was slip­pery and elu­sive Sun­day when the Pa­tri­ots sur­vived a tense meet­ing with the Tex­ans. New­ton hasn’t run as much in the past two sea­sons as he did ear­lier in his ca­reer, but he can still plow through de­fend­ers when he feels like it.

Garop­polo has en­joyed the chance to im­i­tate some of those called run plays up the gut.

“It’s a lot dif­fer­ent than our of­fense, ob­vi­ously, (with) the QB pow­ers and stuff like that,” Garop­polo said. “But it’s al­ways fun to try it out.”

It’s al­ways an in­ter­est­ing dy­namic for backup quar­ter­backs. Garop­polo has to be able to run the Pa­tri­ots of­fense if he’s ever needed to spell Tom Brady, but his pri­mary duty dur­ing the prac­tice week is to pre­pare the Pa­tri­ots de­fense as much as pos­si­ble. That’s a lot eas­ier now in his fourth sea­son, but it’s a far greater chal­lenge for younger quar­ter­backs.

“My rookie year, it was dif­fi­cult, but it also helps you at the same time,” Garop­polo said. “You try out dif­fer­ent guys’ ca­dences, dif­fer­ent styles of throw­ing and try to put it to­ward your game and I think it re­ally helped me.”

Pep­pers shakes it up

At 37, Pan­thers line­man Julius Pep­pers is the third old­est de­fen­sive player in the league, yet he leads his team with 2.5 sacks in his home­com­ing.

The sec­ond over­all pick of the 2002 draft had 81 sacks with the Pan­thers in his first eight sea­sons and then ac­cu­mu­lated 37.5 sacks in four sea­sons with the Bears and 25 in three years with the Pack­ers. Suf­fice to say, he has caught Bill Belichick’s at­ten­tion this week.

“Julius was a tremen­dous ath­lete com­ing into the league,” Belichick said. “The guys that come in with that kind of rare abil­ity gen­er­ally seem to last longer than most oth­ers. But he’s been very pro­duc­tive for Carolina, then up in the NFC North and then back in Carolina again. They’ve used him a lit­tle bit in­side, but he’s not only good de­fen­sively — he’s very good at block­ing kicks.

“He’s long. He’s very ath­letic. In some schemes I’m sure he could play line­backer, could play out­side line­backer, so you’re talk­ing about that kind of ath­lete for as big as he is, as ath­letic as he is, a guy like (Tex­ans de­fen­sive end Jade­veon) Clowney, guys like that.”

STAFF FILE PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER EVANS

HE’LL BE BACK: The sprained knee Dont’a Hightower (54) suf­fered in the sea­son opener kept him out the last two weeks.

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