FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots treat their linebackers almost interchangeably.

They rotate them from series to series. They play them off the ball and on the edge. Through these changes, their defense maintains a critical element of unpredictability.

Specific to Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower, two of the Pats’ most versatile linebackers, it helps that they share a football brain.

“We’re at the point where I just have to look at him,” Van Noy said Thursday, “and he knows what I’m thinking, and I know what he’s thinking.”

Early on, though, Van Noy remembers a different relationship. Around the time he was acquired from Detroit in a 2016 midseason trade, the Patriots shipped Jamie Collins to Cleveland. That stripped Hightower of one of his closest friends in the locker room.

According to Van Noy, who had clearly become Collins’ replacement, Hightower didn’t warm up to him.

“Unfortunately we traded our guy Jamie – we’re all brothers now, so I’m able to talk about it – so (Hightower) didn’t like me for a little bit, right?” Van Noy recalled. “At first, I had to ask him where I had to go on plays and I told myself, ‘By the time I’ve been here for a month, I’m not going to ask him where I need to go on a play.’”

Instead, Van Noy says he committed himself to working 16-hour days and mastered the Patriots defense within his targeted goal of one month. Van Noy’s synergy with Hightower simultaneously grew with his understanding of the playbook. Soon enough, they were predicting offensive plays together before the snap.

“As you get older your athleticism may go down, but you can make up for it by knowing where to go and knowing what the other team is doing,” Van Noy said. “It’s fun calling out their plays.”

Van Noy also called himself one of the smartest players in the NFL, a club that no doubt also includes a few of his teammates; and even more specifically, a few of his fellow linebackers.

“(Van Noy)’s done a good job for us and is able to play all those spots, and honestly, you kind of forget about how easily he does it. You sort of take it for granted,” Bill Belichick said Thursday. “Jamie (Collins has) got some of those same skills too, so does High. So we’re really fortunate to have multiple players who can do those things and go in and out of different looks, fronts and coverage responsibilities.

“And they all work well together.”

MAC JONES was removed from the final injury report of the week after being listed with a left thumb injury and sporting a new glove on the practice field. Jones downplayed the injury when asked about its severity.

J.C. JACKSON HAS has led the AFC in interceptions for weeks, so it’s no surprise Jackson now leads the conference’s cornerbacks in Pro Bowl votes. Informed of his voting lead Wednesday, Jackson said it would be a “huge accomplishment” to earn his first Pro Bowl honor this season.

“I’ve never been in the Pro Bowl, so just making that, getting that acknowledgment, it’d mean a lot,” he said. “It means I’m doing something good.”

Fan voting closed Thursday night and Pro Bowl rosters will be announced Dec. 20, once players and coaches cast their ballots. Jackson’s league-wide profile has risen following the departure of Stephon Gilmore, who served as the Pats’ No. 1 corner the past four seasons. In his place, Jackson has grabbed seven picks, made 44 tackles and broken up 10 other passes this year.

“I just want to thank my peers, the players I play against, the fans,” Jackson said. “I appreciate you guys for the votes and just believing in me.”

Earlier this month, Patriots cornerbacks coach Mike Pellegrino noted Jackson has elevated his level of preparation and professionalism behind the scenes. The fourth-year corner agreed with his position coach, and added his extra effort has directly resulted in more playmaking.

“Just studying more, running to the ball every play, every snap. The little things like that, man,” he said. “You practice those and they carry on into games. That’s how I’ve been preparing myself this year.”

COVID CASE: The Patriots have had three players sidelined by the coronavirus over the past two weeks, the latest being backup offensive lineman Yasir Durant.

Durant was one of 31 NFL players placed on COVID-19 reserve Wednesday. The league has had 30-plus players placed on COVID-19 reserve every day this week. Durant, who was acquired in an Aug. 30 trade with the Chiefs, hasn’t played since Week 6.

The 6-foot-7, 330-pounder initially appeared as a reserve in the season opener, then started Week 2 at right tackle against the Jets. He allowed two sacks in that game and then reverted to the bench.


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