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After an up-and-down season, these 5 Patriots could be critical to postseason success

01.08.14 at 12:24 am ET
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Dont'a Hightower needs to have a big postseason. (AP)

Linebacker Dont’a Hightower needs to have a big postseason. (AP)

Heading into the postseason, the Patriots have their acknowledged core on both sides of the ball. At the same time, there are a handful of players who have had an up-and-down year but remain vital to the success of the team going into the postseason. For myriad reasons — personnel, scheme, lack of depth, or all of the above — they will get extensive playing time in the playoffs, and if they step up their games the Patriots could end up going deep into the postseason.

Linebacker Dont’€™a Hightower

The second-year linebacker out of Alabama has had an up-and-down season. There have been times this year where he’€™s looked very impressive, a singular member of an above-average corps of linebackers. But in the weeks after Jerod Mayo went down with a season-ending injury, Hightower appeared to have more responsibility placed on his shoulders, and it looked like he struggled while making the transition from complementary part of the defense to leader and key figure. He admitted Tuesday that there were times this year where he tried to do too much, and had problems finding the balance between “doing your job” and trying to do too much when it came to replacing Mayo. He said Tuesday he’€™s now been able to dial back to a point where he needs to be. (The numbers certainly bear that out — the analytical web site Pro Football Focus graded him positively over the final four games of the season, and he has a combined 27 tackles in the last three contests.) Going into the postseason, he’€™ll have to take more of a leadership role — particularly when it comes to working with rookie linebacker Jamie Collins — and he’€™ll be asked to do more from a practical perspective as well, working with Collins and Dane Fletcher as the Patriots try and replicate the production of Brandon Spikes, who was placed on season-ending injured reserve earlier this month. How he handles those increased responsibilities this time around will likely play a large role in how successful the New England defense is in the postseason.

Wide receiver Danny Amendola

Amendola has had plenty of good moments over the course of his first season in New England — in 12 games, he finished with 54 catches for 633 yards and two touchdowns. That included two games where he had 10 catches, one against the Bills in the season opener and the second in a December loss to the Dolphins in Miami. (He was particularly impressive in both, but he just missed coming down with what would have been the game-winner late in the defeat against the Dolphins.) Nice numbers, but at the same time, there were plenty of occasions where he seemed to fall off the radar screen. That included five games where he had three or fewer catches. The Patriots passing game has become reliant on the work of Julian Edelman — if Amendola can gain some separation in the postseason, he could serve as a complementary element to Edelman and open up a whole new option in the passing game for Tom Brady and the Patriots.

Running back Stevan Ridley

At this point, Ridley’€™s ball security issues are well documented. Coming off a season where he rushed for 1,263 yards, he had problems hanging on to the ball right out of the gate, and things reached a low point for the LSU product in December when he was a healthy scratch for a Patriots’€™ win over the Texans. Since that point, Ridley has slowly been re-integrated into the game plan to the point where he had 21 snaps a game in the final two regular season contests, and averaged 64 yards per game in that stretch. While he may have lost his job as the lead back — it’€™s hard to argue with the production displayed by LeGarrette Blount over the last half of the season — he still figures to be a key part of the running game heading into the postseason as New England aims for an NFL trick that hasn’€™t been pulled off since the Reagan Administration.

Safety Steve Gregory

Accorded as one of the smartest players on the New England defense, Gregory has had a good year for the most part, but has appeared to struggle at times when it comes to taking angles and taking down tacklers in the open field. There have been more than a few occasions this season where a pass catcher was able to pick up extra yardage when Gregory didn’€™t take a direct path to the ballcarrier, including one situation in Miami last month that resulted in a touchdown for the Dolphins. The Patriots secondary has been the steadiest and most consistent area on defense this season — if Gregory gets back to playing the sort of football he did at the end of 2012, it’€™ll continue to be a strength for New England going into the postseason.

Wide receiver Aaron Dobson

Dobson is fundamentally in the same boat as Amendola, but the rookie is also unique in that he represents New England’€™s best deep threat in the passing game. Dobson’€™s 14 yards per catch is second on the team to fellow rookie Kenbrell Thompkins, who has a 14.6 per catch average. But at the same time, Dobson has started more games than Thompkins, and has slightly better numbers across the board when it comes to catches (37 to 32), targets (79 to 69) and yardage (519 to 466). The first inclination is to grant the rookies some more slack — after all, this is their first postseason go-round — but the truth is that after a full season in the NFL, the rookies aren’€™t rookies anymore, and need to take the lessons they learned over the course of the regular season and apply them to the postseason. If Dobson can emerge as a dependable threat in the playoffs — a question mark, given the fact that he’€™s been dealing with a foot injury that kept him out of practice on Tuesday — it will create plenty of new possibilities when it comes to the Patriots passing game.

Read More: Aaron Dobson, Danny Amendola, Dont'a Hightower, Stevan Ridley Print  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
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