Analysis

How Dont’a Hightower could key a return to dominance for the Patriots’ defense

The Patriots defense badly missed Hightower's presence last season. Now, he's back and hoping to be better than ever.

Dont'a Hightower Patriots
Dont'a Hightower (54) and safety Devin McCourty (32) call defensive signals for the Patriots against the Miami Dolphins. Charles Krupa/AP
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The struggles of the New England Patriots defense in 2020, which finished 26th in the NFL in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average or DVOA, can’t be laid solely on the presence or absence of any one player.

The team itself seemed to acknowledge that by shoring up multiple spots on the defensive side this offseason, including signing outside linebackers Matthew Judon and ex-Patriot Kyle Van Noy, adding Davon Godchaux and second-round pick Christian Barmore to the defensive line, and signing defensive back Jalen Mills for depth in the secondary.

But the return of inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who opted out of last season, has the potential to be the biggest move of all.

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After intense speculation about his NFL future all offseason, Hightower took the field again just prior to veteran minicamp and looked the same as ever. He immediately resumed his role as the quarterback of the defense and even showed off his playmaking skills with a marvelous interception of Mac Jones during camp.

That play – though it took place in minicamp without pads – was exactly the kind of game-changing play the Patriots didn’t get much from their embattled linebacking crew last year.

But Hightower brings far more to the table than the occasional splash play. The experience, physicality, and versatility he brings back to the field make the Patriots defense more dangerous than it could dream of being in 2020.

“Boomtower” is back.

Through no lack of effort on their part, the Patriots’ linebacking corps was simply overmatched last year.

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Hightower’s absence and depth issues at the position forced third-year linebacker Ja’Whaun Bently into a bigger role than anticipated and saw 5-foot-11, 210-pound safety Adrian Phillips drop down into a linebacker spot simply to help the defense survive.

As admirably as they performed, there was simply no replacing what Hightower brings to the table in terms of physicality and football IQ.

This Week 3 play against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2019 demonstrates both of those traits resoundingly.

The Steelers try to pull one over on the Patriots with some misdirection. They fake a weak-side quick toss to their single back while dragging their slot receiver, multi-purpose threat Jaylen Samuels (38), underneath for a jet sweep pass, pulling their guard for a “power”-type run.

Hightower vs. Steelers 1 / NFL Game Pass

Patrick Chung (23), the inside linebacker on the defense’s left side, bites on the pitch action. But Hightower (54), on Chung’s right, isn’t fooled in the slightest. He spots right guard David DeCastro (66) pulling across the formation and immediately moves to head off the shovel pass heading toward him.

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There he meets massive Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva (78) in the hole, out-leverages him at the point of attack, and (thanks to some help from a teammate’s leg) throws Villanueva to the ground on his way to making the tackle.

Hightower vs. Steelers 2 / NFL Game Pass

It simply doesn’t get much better than that.

Especially at the middle linebacker spot, Hightower’s play recognition, speed, and strength allowed him both to shoot gaps for stops or discard blockers with raw power in a way no Patriots linebacker last year could.

That value alone would be worth quite a bit to a Patriots defense that was possibly the NFL’s worst against the run last season.

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But that’s the scary part: Hightower can do much more than just play off the ball and get downhill against the run.

In 2019, he played 31 percent of his snaps in a “D-Line” alignment as an outside linebacker according to Pro Football Focus, setting strong edges in the run game and causing devastation as a pass rusher.

Hightower registered more pass rushes (277) and more quarterback pressures (33) than any other linebacker in 2019, with his seven sacks sitting just behind fellow Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins. The only Patriots defender with more pressures that year was Van Noy (60).

Whether you’re talking about the defense’s struggles to stop the run or the unit registering more than 100 fewer pressures in 2020 vs. 2019, one thing seems certain (provided health): Hightower will help both aspects.

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If he plays anything like he did the last time we saw him on a football field for a whole season, he’ll be one of the biggest reasons the Patriots defense turns back into a dominant unit in 2021.

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