New England Patriots: Dont’a Hightower Among Most Underrated Defensive Players in NFL

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Dont’a Hightower is the Most Underrated Defensive Player in the NFL

Mandatory Credit: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

New England had their best defensive game this season in week eight against Miami (at least against an NFL-caliber quarterback–can anyone be sure that Brandon Weeden in week five against Dallas qualifies?). The standout on defense in that matchup was inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower.

Hightower has become an afterthought with the media frenzy over fellow linebacker Jamie Collins. Collins has deserved the attention as his athletic ability has allowed him to blossom as his knowledge and comfort in the defense continues to grow. Whether in coverage of tight ends, leaping over centers to block an extra point, or blitzing through the A gap to sack a quarterback, Collins has been a breakout star in 2015.

However, the one game New England played without Hightower due to injury his loss was noticed in the running game and in coverage. At six-foot-two and 260 pounds, Hightower is a thumper in the running game. Last year in the Super Bowl, it was his tackle–with a serious shoulder injury–of Marshawn Lynch at the one yard line that was the play which set up Malcolm Butler’s interception.

Hightower led the run defense which held the Dolphins to 15 yards on 13 attempts. He had three tackles but as the offensive line focused on Jamie Collins blitzing, Hightower brought the pressure and added a sack to his season total which now stands at 3.5 sacks.

Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

Hightower was originally viewed as a bust after Nick Caserio, Bill Belichick, and the New England Patriots drafted him in the first round out of Alabama in the 2012 NFL Draft. After a rookie season which had him dealing with a hamstring injury early in the year, Hightower finished the year with 4 sacks and 60 tackles in 14 games.

In 2013, Hightower continued to struggle as he played out of position at the weakside (Will) linebacker position with veteran Jerod Mayo in the strongside (Sam) linebacker role. Hightower stepped up and showed huge improvement once Mayo was on the sidelines for the season and he received regular playing time at strongside linebacker the rest of the season.

Hightower did still struggle at times in 2013. He initially had play calling responsibilities taken away from him for a few games and he was benched against Denver as he was a liability in coverage and Dane Fletcher came in and took over for him. Another game–against the New Orleans Saints–he played the whole game without a tackle, assist, or pass defended and had no stats on defense despite playing almost the whole game.

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  • In 2014 the Patriots initially struggled to dole out snaps to their linebackers and the defense struggled in week one against the Dolphins as the Patriots seemed unsure what to do with Hightower, Mayo, and Collins. Collins was injured in week two and missed the Minnesota game and played just a handful of snaps against Oakland in week three. Hightower was injured in week four against Kansas City and did not return until week seven against the New York Jets. With Mayo going down for the season in week six, Hightower was able to return and play in his customary Sam linebacker position.

    Hightower and Collins have played so well in the sub package together (4-2-5 or 3-2-6 alignment) that forcing Mayo onto the field in that alignment seems like it could hurt more than help. Hightower is an excellent blitzer with a strong burst, power moves, and an excellent ability to read blocks and perfectly time their penetration. Last year (subscription required) had Hightower ranking seventh at the position getting pressure 16.1% of the time he rushed the passer.

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    The struggles of mid-2013 are all but forgotten with Hightower. He and Collins make a dynamic duo and play off of each other so well that the Patriots would be wise to be looking to extend their young linebackers. Hightower is one of the Patriots’ better run stoppers, excels in zone coverage, and is a premier pass rusher from the inside linebacker position.

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    In 2015 veteran linebacker Jerod Mayo has had trouble getting on the field with Hightower and Jamie Collins and a large part of that is due to their play. Collins has gotten the headlines, but Hightower is equally as important to the defense. Even in New England Hightower still has his detractors who have latched onto his rough start and still not given him his due. However, he is a superstar in his own right and a player opposing offenses have to account for during each game.