It was first and goal from the 5-yard line and the New England Patriots defense needed to make a stop in order to beat the Seattle Seahawks and win Super Bowl XLIX. While the key moment of the game – Malcolm Butler’s interception – happened only one snap later, the first play laid the groundwork for it.
And it was arguably the biggest play of Dont’a Hightower’s career, at least up to that point. Despite playing with a shoulder injury, Hightower was able to disengage from his block and tackle running back Marshawn Lynch just short of the goal line – setting up what would become the eventually game-clinching pick.
In Sunday’s Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons, the Patriots again were in need of a defensive play. And again it was Hightower who answered the call.
Coming off a field goal to make the it a 28-12 game with under 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Falcons started their subsequent series on their own 27-yard line. After two runs for positive yardage, Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan called a pass on 3rd and 1. On the opposite side of the line of scrimmage, Hightower aligned on the defensive left edge and would ultimately blitz.
"Honestly, not a complicated blitz, blitzing outside," Hightower said after the game. "I think they had actually run that play maybe once or twice the previous series." Only running back Devonta Freman was between the linebacker and quarterback Matt Ryan, and Hightower was able to get by him almost untouched. "Freeman, I guess, Freeman didn’t see me outside and I guess he went to chip or check and just lost sight of me. I’d seen Matt Ryan with the ball in his hands and I wanted it, so I hit him and took it from him."
Hightower sacked Ryan for a loss of not only 11 yards but also possession: The quarterback, who never saw the defender coming, fumbled the football on the hit and defensive tackle Alan Branch recovered. Five plays later, the Patriots scored a touchdown and with the subsequent two-point conversion, made the Super Bowl a one-possession game.
"I think Hightower’s sack-fumble was the turning point," noted fellow defender Rob Ninkovich after the game ended. And the veteran was not the only one to feel that way. Edge defender Chris Long called it the biggest play of the game, while free safety Devin McCourty said that it gave the entire team momentum. Head coach Bill Belichick also called it a huge play.
Hightower himself took a more pragmatic answer when asked if the strip sack sparked the Patriots’ comeback. "I don’t know if it sparked it, if it did or if it didn’t. All I know is coming out of halftime, we just knew that we had to get a three-and-out or a turnover or something to get moving." They did just that, courtesy of Hightower’s strip. And just like two years ago, the defensive captain made a key play that helped turn a Super Bowl that seemingly was lost into a victory.