Dont'a Hightower will not let another broken defensive cog change the way he plays. The loss of fellow linebacker Brandon Spikes, who hit IR Monday, is a burden the defense must bear collectively.

It's a lesson Hightower learned the hard way.

"Usually, whenever a guy tries to step up and be kind of a vocal leader or do too much outside the box of what they normally do, it kind of puts themselves in a tough position," he said Tuesday. "I've been there, I've done that, tried to do too much. It didn't work for me, but I fell back, and everything is finally coming back in to play."

The 23-year old fell under the spotlight when starter Jerod Mayo suffered a season-ending injury October 13. Mayo is a six-year Patriot, a captain, a two-time Pro Bowler and an All-Pro. It should surprise no one to hear Hightower felt pressure in filling such shoes.

"[I was] just trying to do a little too much," he admitted.

It was unfortunately obvious.

Hightower, a first-round pick in 2012, was a starter from Week 1. He finished his rookie season with 60 tackles and four sacks in 14 games. Expectations for the following year were high, and none were higher than the player's own.

That's why Hightower's play this season has been surprising. In Mayo's stead, he sometimes appeared a step behind or even out of place.