I was right there with you. When green-dot-play-calling linebacker Dont'a Hightower wound up on the bench mid-way through the Denver game, I wanted him to stay there. For the rest of the year. Not only was he brutal in pass coverage, but he was also unimpressive in the run game. His most redeeming quality was that he could help relay the play calls from the sideline- and if that's what kept him on the field, then there's something wrong with the rest of the defense.
For the first three quarters of the season, Hightower just couldn't get it right. He was thrust into a failing position, having to cover the more spry Jerod Mayo's role as the coverage linebacker, while also helping stop the run to spell Brandon Spikes' aching knees. At 270 lbs, Hightower's not meant for the deep coverage role, even though he'll do his best to help. Hightower's built like a truck who can stop the run, while showing surprising lateral agility to cover in the flat. Down the field against more athletic tight ends? Heaven help him.
You might be surprised that that over the final quarter of the season, that Hightower's seen almost a 50% increase in targets. You might be surprised that he's allowing 10% more of those attempts to be completed. But those watching closely realize that this is a different Hightower- and he's much, much better.
Hightower may be letting up receptions, but he's not letting players by him anymore; his yards after the catch have almost been sliced in half. He's playing smarter and his zone drops are cleaner. He's not sacrificing any facet of his game, either- his run defense is as strong as ever. He's not been a liability anymore and his competence couldn't come at a better time.
Of course, it'd be folly not to link this bildungsroman to the emergence of Sealver Siliga and Jamie Collins. If Siliga will be the defensive MVP of the playoff run, it'll not just be a result of his fantastic individual play. He's allowed Hightower to have smaller gaps to attack, unlike the gaping voids that Chris Jones allows, making tackles easier. He's allowed the Patriots to string along Jamie Collins as a coverage linebacker, instead of forcing the Patriots to compensate for poor defensive tackle play by playing both Hightower and Spikes.
And there's Collins. He's been splitting time with the injured Spikes and he's done a fantastic job with the plays allotted. Over the final four games of the season, his play time has increased from just 15% of snaps to 59%. He's almost become a three down player, allowing the Patriots to field a stouter defense (Collins instead of a cornerback), making it harder for defenses to scheme around the Patriots personnel.
Between Hightower and Collins, the Patriots have an interesting case of flexibility to defend the Colts.
There's no question that T.Y. Hilton is the most important weapon on the Colts offense (31.6% of the Colts Yards over the past four games, 19.1% of the Colts touch attempts), although Donald Brown (17.7% yards/18.4% touch attempts) and Trent Richardson (12.5% yards/21.0% touch attempts) absolutely have to be held in check.
In fact, I might wonder if Belichick wants to challenge the Colts to try and win with Hilton again, since the running backs (combined) account for over a third of the offense (30.2% of the yards, 39.4% of the touch attempts). Shading Devin McCourty over the top of Hilton will effectively eliminate the deep pass, giving the Patriots some freedom to vary their coverage underneath. Also adding to the value?
Hightower and Collins.
Not only have both of them emerged as solid coverage players, allowing for bracketing techniques in the middle of the field against Coby Fleener, they are also quick enough to shadow the running backs into the flat. If the Patriots deem McCourty capable enough to lock down Hilton over the top (and as Pro Football Focus's #1 overall safety, he should be able to limit Hilton, at the very least), then Luck will be forced to check down to his second and third favorite weapons in Richardson and Brown.
Where Hightower and Collins benefit the defense is in their versatility. Both can defend the run. Both can cover in zone. Both can cover man in the flat. With both of them on the field, the Patriots can simplify their coverage calls by having one step up to cover the running back in the flat as the outlet, while the other either steps back to help bracket the tight end and slot receivers or crash the pocket to provide additional pressure. This not only helps limit Luck's #2 target (running back), but it also provides additional support on Luck's #3 or 4 target (Fleener).
The linebacker not providing coverage support can have a tremendous impact in providing pressure. Per Pro Football Focus, Luck's accuracy was the 4th worst our of qualifying starting quarterbacks (sandwiched between Eli Manning and Andy Dalton, and Geno Smith and Matt Schaub). Both Hightower (strength) and Collins (speed) can provide challenges for opposing offensive lines via delay blitzes, as can Brandon Spikes. The value comes in the pressure, though, as Luck was 5th best in the league at avoiding the sack.
Pressure and contain. Don't sell out for the sack. Tight coverage of the outlet running back. Dont'a Hightower. This is your game and this is your time to shine. Show everyone why you're not the same player we saw at the beginning of the year and be the player you've been for the past quarter of the season.