Watch the following two plays because they are important:
This is New England Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower drilling Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer on the Cardinals opening drive. The pressure from Hightower forces Palmer to get rid of the ball quickly and allows the Patriots secondary to make the tackle short of the first down marker.
This is Hightower tackling Cardinals running back David Johnson for a 1-yard gain immediately after the two-minute warning, late in the fourth quarter.
One quarterback hit on the opening drive. One tackle on the final drive. These are the only two plays where Hightower registered on the stat sheet the entire game.
I went back to the tape to see what happened with Hightower and why his production didn’t seem to match his utility. It became clear that a potential leg injury he suffered early in the game that forced him to work on a stationary bike affected his play. He was not at practice on Wednesday.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, for his part, was effusive in his praise of Hightower.
“He’s really smart, he’s very football smart, he has got very good instincts in all phases of the game, in the running game, in the passing game, as a pass rusher,” Belichick said. “He does all of those things well but he understands them well. He’s really smart. He can handle any of that. He can handle any coverage adjustments, he can handle the running game, he can handle pass-rush games, the strategy that we use there as a defensive linemen, so there’s really no issues with him at all.”
It’s this versatility that allows Hightower to align all over the formation, and it’s this perception of ability that forced Hightower into some difficult situations on Sunday night.
Hightower is asked to defend the run, defend the pass, and rush the quarterback. He played stand-up linebacker, edge defender, and, at times, on a 3-man line.
Hightower is better at some roles than at others. He’s one of the best pass rushing stand-up linebackers in the league. He’s a stout run defender. He’s capable of covering running backs out of the backfield. He’s not a linebacker you would use in coverage of a wide receiver.
Still, one tackle out of 58 snaps is well below expectations for a player of his caliber, even with an injury that he played through. There were a few key moments over the course of the game where Hightower stood out, for better or for worse, and they’re worth sharing.
Hightower injured his leg- it looked like his right leg in the replay- at the end of the Cardinals second drive, halfway through the first quarter. All of these plays take place after the injury.
But you can see how the injury impacted Hightower’s ability to clog the hole and stop the run. He is unable to plant his leg and just goes straight to the turf, leaving a gaping hole for the back. A healthy Hightower could have and would have plugged the offensive lineman to close the rushing lane.
Hightower drops into coverage of tight end Jermaine Gresham and requires a few steps to close in once he realizes Carson Palmer is passing his direction. Shea McClellin actually makes the tackle.
While I don’t know if a healthy Hightower could have made a play on the ball, I think he would have been more competitive and at least have been able to hit the receiver upon completion of the pass.
Hightower helps close out the half with a sack on Palmer. The Patriots used him in a pass rushing capacity for a good chunk of the game, which kind of removed him from the tackle-accumulating role at stand-up linebacker.
He won’t register on the stat sheet for this play, but it’s clear that he has an impact on the play. He destroys the pocket and forces Palmer to look for a place to move- but Jamie Collins and Chris Long are closing in.
The Patriots blitzed Logan Ryan on the second play of the Cardinals final drive. The blitz required Hightower on a bad leg to drop from the A gap into the slot to cover Larry Freaking Fitzgerald, which seems like an awful idea when I’m just writing this out.
Fitzgerald was toasting Ryan all day, so watching an injured Hightower be unable to plant and square up the receiver seemed more expected than anything.
But I think it’s pretty clear that the leg injury was seriously affecting Hightower’s play the entire game. He wasn’t closing gaps, he wasn’t able to plant in the open field, and he didn’t have the burst he usually has in the open field.
Hightower is such an important part of the Patriots defense that I wouldn’t be surprised if they sat him the next week- or two- to ensure he’s fully healthy for the long season.
“Dont'a just does an excellent job of leading when he's out there, so he's certainly someone I rely on a lot,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “He's a guy for me that is out on the field but is really the voice that's coming through of what we're trying to get done. A really smart player; very tough, physical, all the ability, but just a really smart football player.”
If Hightower is unable to play, the Patriots will rely on their depth at the position with Shea McClellin and Jonathan Freeny. Jamie Collins will remain the weakside linebacker, while McClellin will be the strongside linebacker and Freeny will be the middle linebacker.
Hopefully Hightower can heal quickly and return to the field. The Patriots need him out there in order to elevate the defense until Tom Brady returns from his suspension.