When New England Patriots LB Dont’a Hightower is healthy, he is one of the most dominant forces in the NFL. The problem is that it seems like Hightower is always dealing with an injury. Hightower has played all 16 regular season games just once in his 5-year career (2013), and this season he missed three games.
Hightower suffered a knee injury in the season opener and did not play in week 2 or 3. Hightower resurfaced on the injury report with a knee problem in week 15, along with a shoulder injury.
And so while all eyes are on Hightower’s pending contract negotiation in the wake of a Jamie Collins deal in Cleveland, more attention should be given to Hightower’s role in the Patriots defense as of late.
The Patriots would love for a healthy Hightower to be an every-down player in the heart of the defense, but that just hasn’t been the case this year. Hightower ranked 3rd in the linebacker rotation behind Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy in the conference title game, just ahead of rookie LB Elandon Roberts.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick hinted that he wants Hightower back in full capacity for the Super Bowl.
“I think that linebacker group in particular...has a great chemistry,” Belichick said after the Steelers game. “Those guys really work well together and we’ve had some moving parts in there, guys playing different roles. Shea and obviously High [Hightower], Kyle, Elandon, those guys all played a significant role for us.
“The communication at times is a little bit challenging if the green dot is on one guy and he’s not on there then it falls to somebody else. They do a good job of that. Our safeties do a good job with that communication as well, so we’ve been able to handle it. But it’s a little bit of a challenge when the same person is not in there for every single snap as far as that part of it goes. Dont’a has given us great leadership all year.”
Belichick understands that it’s easier on the defensive communication when the same linebacker calls the play every single snap and the Patriots were fortunate enough to build an early lead against the Steelers to afford Hightower some rest.
Since week 8 against the Buffalo Bills, which was one day before the Patriots traded Collins away, Hightower has rarely been a 100% player for the Patriots. He has been an every-down player in just four of the Patriots past 11 games, to go with an injury absence against the Jets in week 15. Hightower is averaging just 67% of the snaps in the other six games, including a 52.2% snap performance against the Steelers.
Belichick believes that the linebackers are better for the experience, despite some growing pains, and that Hightower’s been a crucial part of the team’s navigation through potentially troubling times.
“Again, it’s a young group. Kyle is new. Shea is new. Shea was really a defensive end and outside linebacker and then we moved him back in midseason,” Belichick said. “Elandon is a young player so Dont’a has really done a good job of bringing that group together, giving them great leadership, helping the communication and those guys ave embraced it and they’ve grown themselves.”
Hightower will have two weeks to get as healthy as possible for the Super Bowl, but he’s no stranger to playing through an injury on the biggest stage. Hightower played the entirety of Super Bowl XLIX with a torn labrum (shoulder) that required surgery after the game. The Patriots will ask Hightower for yet another herculean effort this time around.