Hightower on way back
Expected to face Panthers
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.
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.”
HE’LL BE BACK: The sprained knee Dont’a Hightower (54) suffered in the season opener kept him out the last two weeks.