You cannot write the story of the New England Patriots’ dynasty without mentioning linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Not only has he been one of the most consistent players on the team’s defense ever since joining it via the first round of the NFL draft in 2012, he has also served as a leader off the field as well as the defensive signal caller on it. Furthermore, the Alabama product has made some of the biggest plays in franchise history.
Just think back to last year’s Super Bowl, when Hightower delivered an MVP-worthy performance. He registered a pair of sacks and three quarterback hits against the Los Angeles Rams set the tone for the Patriots defense all day long. With Hightower leading the charge, New England was able to basically shut down one of the NFL’s high-powered offenses in what can be classified as a defensive performance for the ages.
If we go back even further, we can find more big playoff performances from the veteran. Whether it is forcing a fumble on a strip-sack against Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in Super Bowl 51 — one that was recovered by the Patriots and a key part in their 25-point comeback — or tackling Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch just short of the goal line before Malcolm Butler’s game-sealing interception in Super Bowl 49, Hightower delivered when the spotlight was the brightest.
On Saturday against the Tennessee Titans, the Patriots can not win the Super Bowl just yet but they can very well join the 31 teams to eventually lose it. In order for that not to happen, the team will need its playmakers to deliver — and Hightower is undoubtably one of them as his past playoff output shows. But why is he so good when the pressure is at its highest? According to fellow team captain Devin McCourty, his work ethic is the main reason for that.
“He came in here obviously from Alabama, a guy that was a leader and knew the defense well coming in, and he’s continued to do that,” McCourty said about the 29-year-old who has appeared in 15 playoff contests for the Patriots so far. “He’s been a leader for us. He’s been the guy that calls the huddle. He knows where everyone’s aligned, and I think he doesn’t budge in these big games. He goes out there and plays his best.”
Hightower did that from the very first game of his NFL career — one that coincidentally came against the same Titans that he and his team will face on wild card weekend: on opening day 2012, the 25th overall draft pick did not just register five tackles but he also scored his first career touchdown when he scooped up a fumble forced by fellow rookie Chandler Jones and returned it six yards for the score.
While Hightower’s second career touchdown had to wait until earlier this year — he recovered a fumble and ran it back for a touchdown in Week 8 against the Cleveland Browns — his playmaking ability was on display ever since, and something that the Patriots defense has needed at numerous times throughout the years. McCourty acknowledged that when talking about his teammate during a press conference earlier this week.
“He’s a guy when we haven’t had him, we’ve missed him a lot, and when we do have him, it’s a pleasure to have him out there. We know he’s going to make plays because he knows where he’s aligned, he knows where everybody is supposed to be and we kind of count on that,” he said. With Hightower in the lineup, the Patriots have played some strong defensive football throughout the years and they will need more of it on Saturday.
It would be fitting. Not only did Hightower score his first career touchdown against the Titans in his first game in the NFL, he also visited the organization during his brief stint as a free agent in March 2017 before ultimately returning to the Patriots on a four-year, $35.5 million contract. Oh, and he was born in Tennessee as well — growing up 50 miles south of Nashville in the small town of Lewisburg, where he also started his football career.
Beating his de facto hometown team on the road to another Super Bowl would therefore be the perfect continuation of it, especially with “Mr. February” making a big play along the way... even if we are in the wrong month.