When the 2017 New England Patriots entered the Super Bowl, they fielded a team that decimated by injury on both sides of the ball. One of the biggest losses was linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who had suffered a torn pectoral muscle in week seven: just eight months after signing a four-year, $35.5 million contract, the team captain and defensive signal caller was therefore placed on season-ending injured reserve.
Without Hightower in the lineup, the Patriots defense was shredded by the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL’s title game. Naturally, expectations were sky-high when he returned to the team for offseason workouts and later the regular season. Early on, however, the 28-year old did not give New England’s defense the much needed boost and instead oftentimes looked slow and lacking the energy he displayed through his first six years in the league.
This all changed in week four against the Miami Dolphins: Hightower was back to being his old, reliable self and quick to the football – instrumental in setting tone and tempo for the entire defense. His presence as one of the unit’s leaders is just one part of what makes him as valuable a player for the Patriots as he is. During a recent conference call, head coach Bill Belichick opened up about the other traits he brings to the table.
“High’s a smart player, he can play multiple positions,” Belichick said about the former first-round draft pick. “The mental part of the game seems to come very easy for him, going between Mike or Sam or Will or defensive end or a different position in pass rush on third down. Assignment wise, all those come pretty easily for him, and athletically he has a great combination of size, power, pass rush, zone, man coverage – he’s done all those things for us.”
As Belichick notes, New England has not shied away from using Hightower all over the defensive front seven – and he typically responded well and adapted quickly. “How does he know what to do?” the future Hall of Fame coach asked as part of his answer to the question originally posted by NBC Boston’s Phil Perry. “I’m sure it’s a combination of [film study, instinct, and game experience], like it is with a lot of great players.”
“You could ask [Patrick] Chung and [Devin] McCourty and Malcom Brown and [Kyle] Van Noy and guys like that all the same question, and I’m sure each play and each situation might give you a little bit of a different answer,” continued Belichick. “Through my experience with players, sometimes they can’t even give you an answer. They know, but they just don’t know.”
Belichick went on to talk about the instinctive nature of playing the sport and how that translates to the entire communication within the defense, before coming back to talking about Hightower: “Dont’a does a good job of that, and again, because of his experience at all the different linebacker positions, as well as defensive end, I think he has a real good feel for what everybody else needs to know and how important it is that they get the proper communication because he’s played all those spots.”
New England’s head coach concluded his answer by also praising the rest of his team’s linebacker corps: “[Hightower] does a great job for us in that area – so do Kyle and [Elandon] Roberts and [Ja’Whaun] Bentley when he was in there. They’re all good communicators. High has the most experience and he does an excellent job of it, but those other guys do a good job, too.”
For the Patriots defense to reestablish itself as a unit that can be trusted in high-pressure situations – as opposed to the one that showed up in the aforementioned Super Bowl –, all of the players mentioned by Belichick need to be on top of their game when it comes to communication and chemistry. And the elder statesman of the group, Hightower, might be the most important of them all.