FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Linebacker Dont'a Hightower has assumed an important new role on the Patriots defense in the preseason.
No one has said much about it, but Hightower has been wearing the "green dot" radio communication helmet on defense during preseason games. That's a role which linebacker Jerod Mayo has filled for the defense for years.
In fact, only two players have worn the helmet on a regular basis for the Patriots during the regular season: Tedy Bruschi (2008) and Jerod Mayo (2009-2012).
Yet here, Hightower enters his second season, and already has a fluent understanding of the defense.
"I feel a lot more comfortable about it now," Hightower said. "We'll have situations where, sometimes, Mayo's not in the game, so then I'm the next up (as the) signal caller, so I pretty much control the defense. I feel real comfortable with it, and I feel like I've done a good enough job with it that coach (Bill) Belichick and Matt Patricia, they trust me enough to have me be the backup signal caller."
Considering Bruschi was just inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame and Mayo got a five-year, $48.5 million extension from the Patriots less than two years ago, Hightower's ability to fill that role can only mean good things for his future with the team.
Make no mistake — it's not Mayo who should be looking over his shoulder. He played 1,073 defensive snaps for the Patriots in 2012, second-most on the team. Hightower, on the other hand, played 579 snaps. Expect that number to go way up, and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said we could see Hightower wear the helmet during the regular season.
"We could do it. We’re only allowed to have one green dot on one player and then if that player wasn’t in the game, then we could put it on somebody else," Belichick said. "We use it with different people in preseason, so if we get to that point during the season, we've got other guys that have experience with it. Safeties, linebackers, we’ve used it on different people in practices and in preseason games just for the experience of it."
Not only do the Patriots have some room to put a taller task in front of Hightower. They also don't want to spread Mayo too thin.
As Hightower can attest, wearing the helmet can sometimes have that effect on people.
"It's good and bad," Hightower said, laughing. "Sometimes, the game's going kind of fast, or practice is going fast, the tempo is pretty fast, and you try to get the call from them, you're getting the call in and you try to relay the message, but then you're also getting 'alert for this,' 'alert for that,' 'tell them this.' It's a bunch of stuff, but at the end of the day, I'm still grateful that I have the pleasure to do that."
The player wearing the helmet must be in communication with his fellow linebackers, but also with the defensive line and the defensive backs. It's important to have someone on the roster who has practiced filling that role.
Even while trying to relay messages back and forth between players and coaches, it's easier to have coach in your ear than to have him on the sideline, staring over at him, waiting for a signal.
"It was a lot harder in college with the hand signals," Hightower said. "Our plays were 20 words long, so those signals got real long. I would much rather take the helmet over the signals any day."
It's all new for Hightower, but the helmets are fairly new, themselves, having only been introduced in 2008.
Former Patriots linebacker Gary Guyton took over the responsibility for three games in 2009 when Mayo went down with a knee injury, and again for two games in 2011 under the same circumstance. The only games which Guyton played 100 percent of the snaps those years were the games in which Mayo did not play.
That gives you an idea of the importance of having more than one player that can call the signals for the defense. Still, it's not a privilege everyone earns.
"I’d say in any given week, it probably is two (players) and then depending on who the third is, that may or may not be realistic," Belichick said. "It’s hard to practice more than two, I would say."
Two players, and a second-year linebacker is one of them.
Not everyone earns the responsibility. Dane Fletcher has been a solid backup for the Patriots for three years, but has not worn the green dot outside of preseason. Brandon Spikes has been a pivotal player for the Patriots defense and enters his fourth year with the team and also has not been spotted with the helmet for any extended period of time. The difference: Spikes is not considered a three-down linebacker, but he played 742 snaps in 2012, 163 more than Hightower.
Belichick sees a lot of potential in Hightower for his role to expand.
"Versatile player; he's a smart guy. I think he had good understanding of what we did last year but it’s certainly better this year," Belichick said. "He has a lot more experience. We’ve asked him to do more; he has more responsibilities and he handles those with very few errors. Dependable player that’s adjustable and has a lot of versatility; big guy that can run and do a lot of different things for us."
Versatile, smart and dependable sounds like the perfect Patriots player. For Belichick to give those regards to a second-year linebacker is high praise.
Add "self-motivated" to that list. Hightower tirelessly watches film, not just with his teammates, but by himself.
"It doesn't have to be an hour long," Hightower said. "Even if it's 10 or 15 minutes of extra film, you can pick up a lot more stuff. When you watch it by yourself — as opposed to when you're watching it with the team — you can pick out certain different things. I try to do that at least once every day."
The coaching staff and his teammates have played a part in his development, but Hightower only has himself to thank for earning the honor of being a signal-caller for the Patriots defense. He has worked rigorously to get to this point, and his role in the defense has grown as a result.
That should only continue as the Patriots explore his versatility and as he grows more comfortable with his new responsibilities.
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