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The Patriots have a Dont’a Hightower-sized problem

New England’s linebacker has not been his usual reliable self so far this season.

Atlanta Falcons v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

After returning from a torn pectoral muscle that sidelined him for most of last season, linebacker Dont’a Hightower was expected to be a boost for the New England Patriots’ defense heading into the 2018 season. For a team that had a severe lack of a pass rush in the postseason, the return of Hightower was expected to aid in getting the team’s pass rush back on track.

However, two games into the season, Hightower clearly has not regained his pre-injury form. Whether due to injury or some other cause, Hightower thus far has lacked his usual explosion, and looks slow on the field. Perhaps the Patriots erred in counting on Hightower to get back to his pre-injury level of play, because while he was never a good defender in pass coverage, Hightower’s calling-card, his pass rush, has also been lacking to start the season.

To say Hightower has been invisible to start the season would be misleading, because Hightower has been noticeable, just for the wrong reasons.

1) 1-10-JAX 46 (3:46) (Shotgun) B.Bortles pass short right to C.Grant to NE 41 for 13 yards (K.Van Noy).

Let’s start in the first quarter of Sunday’s loss against Jacksonville, with the Jaguars on their own 46 facing a 1st & 10. Blake Bortles dumps the ball off to Corey Grant in the right flat. Grant evades the tackle attempt of Patriots nickel back Jon Jones, and Hightower is in position to tackle Grant along the sideline. However, Hightower over-pursues and whiffs on his own tackle attempt. He looks slow in changing speed and breaking down to tackle. Kyle Van Noy, who is in a worse position to make the tackle than Hightower on this play, winds up limiting the damage to only a first down conversion by wrapping up Grant from behind and taking him down:

Hightower’s mistake is one you are more likely to see from a rookie linebacker who is a little too eager. But in Hightower’s instance, he overcommits in his pursuit of Grant and cannot stop in his tracks fast enough to tackle Grant. Grant makes him look like an old man on this play.

2) 1-10-JAX 35 (14:15) (Shotgun) T.Yeldon left end pushed ob at NE 45 for 20 yards (D.McCourty).

In the second quarter, with New England trailing 14-0 and Jacksonville on offense again, this time at their own 35. Jacksonville is in ‘20’ personnel with trips to the right initially, until #30 Corey Grant motions into the backfield right before the snap. With the Pats in their nickel package, Van Noy and Hightower are the two linebackers in, with Van Noy in the middle and Hightower playing closer to the line of scrimmage, shading to the weak side of Jacksonville’s formation.

At the snap, Bortles hands it off to running back T.J. Yeldon, who runs to the left of the formation. Jags left guard Andrew Norwell pulls and runs in the same direction as Yeldon. On this play, Hightower has two options, either attempt to push Norwell back and blow up the play, or fill the gap to his right and wrap up Yeldon at the line of scrimmage.

Hightower opts for Choice A, as he tries to lower his shoulder and push Norwell back, but he is completely stoned and winds up getting pancaked into the ground by Norwell, who finishes his block with some tenacity. The smart play here would have been to fill in the gap, because Hightower had the angle to do so, but still, the Dont’a Hightower of old would have the explosion and strength to at least push Norwell back, and limit Yeldon’s gain here.

3) 3-3-NE 49 (1:11) B.Bortles pass short left to C.Grant to NE 44 for 5 yards (M.Brown).

This next play sums up the Patriots linebacking corps’ performance on the day versus the Jags’ running backs quite well:

Bortles throws to Corey Grant behind the line of scrimmage, and New England has both Van Noy and Hightower in the position to make the tackle, but both take bad angles and overcommit, and Grant cuts inside to get the first down to firmly put the game out of reach of a possible New England comeback attempt.

Hightower looked shaky in Week 1 versus Houston, and his diminished performance was even more evident against the creative and fast Jacksonville offense in Week 2. Hopefully, Hightower is simply dealing with a lingering injury and will get back to his previous form. But the early returns are discouraging to start the season, and a weakened Hightower in the middle of the defense would be a huge blow for a Patriots defense that already has poor depth at the linebacker position.