New England Coach Bill Belichick, center, speaks with quarterback Brian Hoyer, right, during l practice on Wednesday in Foxborough, Mass. Steven Senne/Associated Press

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — 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.”

BYRON COWART will not be activated off the PUP list, a move that will end his season for the third-year defensive tackle.


Cowart participated in his first practice on Oct. 20, after missing training camp, the preseason and start of the regular season with an unspecified injury. His return opened a three-week window for activation, a window that closed Wednesday.

Last season, Cowart started 14 games, recording 27 tackles, one sack and three quarterback hits.

JARRETT STIDHAM returned to the active roster on Tuesday, making the quarterback eligible to play for the Patriots again.
New England restored Stidham to the 53-player active roster after he’d spent the first nine weeks of the season on reserve/physically unable to perform.

Stidham had surgery on July 28 because of a back injury. The Patriots had until Wednesday to activate Stidham or leave him on the reserve list for the remainder of the season.

Stidham joins Mac Jones and Brian Hoyer as quarterbacks on the Patriots’ active roster. QB Garrett Gilbert is on New England’s practice squad.

Stidham joined New England in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. In both his pro seasons, he served as the Patriots’ backup quarterback – behind Tom Brady in 2019 and Cam Newton in 2020.


PRACTICE REPORT: Based on the start of Wednesday’s practice, Patriots running backs Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson are not fully healed from the head injuries they suffered in last weekend at Carolina.

Both backs ran with wide receiver Gunner Olszewski (head) on a separate field, while the rest of the team stretched and started positional work. Linebackers Matt Judon and Jamie Collins were also absent, though Judon announced on Instagram he and his wife are currently welcoming their third child.

Offensive tackle Trent Brown returned to practice for the first time in weeks. Brown, who’s currently on injured reserve, has been dealing with a calf injury he suffered in the team’s season opener. Backup guard/center James Ferentz was back on the field after being released Monday and clearing waivers Tuesday, likely re-signed to the practice squad.

WITH TWO MORE interceptions in Carolina, nobody in the league has intercepted more passes than J.C. Jackson (22) since 2018.

The Patriots cornerback always seems to be in the right place at the right time to force turnovers. Devin McCourty has called him a “ball magnet” and on Wednesday morning Bill Belichick lauded Jackson’s ball skills as “high-end.”

“It’s everything,” Belichick explained. “It’s when to look, picking up the ball. A lot of times his back’s to the ball when it leaves the quarterback’s hands, like the interception he had against the Jets. Plays like that, where a receiver comes out of his break and you’re a defender trying to cover the receiver, and then find the ball, be able to catch it, get his feet down in bounds. Plays like that. That was a pretty good play. He tracks the ball well in the deep part of the field. Anticipates well.”

Jackson has stepped into Stephon Gilmore’s vacated No. 1 cornerback role nicely this season.

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