FOXBOROUGH — Rookie linebacker Dont’a Hightower returned to the Patriots’ lineup against the Jets on Sunday after missing two games with a hamstring injury. He wanted to be out there sooner.
“It felt good [to be back],” Hightower said. “I definitely wanted to be out there a little bit earlier, but we were cautious of that, waited it out, got treatment. I feel a lot better, so no looking back now. I’m doing everything I can to prevent a hamstring pull or anything like that again, doing everything I can to stay on the field.”
How does someone prevent a hamstring pull?
“Keep stretching, stay hydrated, small things. Making sure you’re eating right, the weight thing,” Hightower said. “More or less just stretching more, I think that was my biggest problem, but I’m taking care of that now.”
Hightower, a first-round pick from Alabama, has 28 tackles and two sacks, including one against the Jets. He also returned a fumble for a touchdown in the season-opening win at Tennessee.
He’s one of four rookies who saw considerable playing time on defense in Sunday’s game, a shift toward youth partly due to performance, partly due to injuries. The unit might still be led by veterans Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, but Hightower, defensive end Chandler Jones, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, and safety Tavon Wilson are all discovering, in their first year, what roles the Patriots want them to play.
“My role is to hit the dude with the ball, so that’s what I’m doing,” Hightower said. “As long as I do that, then Vince and Mayo, they’re not yelling at me, and I feel like I’m doing my job.”
The dude to hit this week will likely be Steven Jackson, who has gained at least 1,000 rushing yards in each of the last seven seasons. Hightower, while not wanting to give Jackson any added motivation, knows the challenge that awaits the defense in London.
“I’m not a big trash-talking dude, whoever has the ball that’s who I’m going after. But I will say, Steven Jackson is one of the better, bigger backs in the NFL,” Hightower said. “It’s going to feel good having a big challenge going against him this weekend.”