FOXBOROUGH — It has been a tough second season for linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
The Patriots’ second first-round pick in 2012, taken 25th overall out of Alabama, has played in all 13 games, starting 11.
He’s had some solid outings, including a career-high 16 tackles (10 solo) and a quarterback hit against the Jets in Week 7. He followed that with 12 tackles and a sack in the next game against the Dolphins.
But Hightower had zeros across the board against the Saints, not credited with so much as an assist on a tackle, and played so poorly against the Broncos he was benched for Dane Fletcher in the second half.
When Jerod Mayo was injured against the Saints, Hightower was given play-calling responsibilities and the green dot on his helmet, complete with a radio so he could receive plays from the sideline.
That lasted a week. Then safety Steve Gregory sported the green dot. Hightower, however, has gotten another chance at that job.
If Hightower, a fairly soft-spoken native of Lewisburg, Tenn., a relatively small town in the center of the state, has been bothered by the ups and downs of his season, he hasn’t shown it.
The closest he’s come, at least publicly, was in a tweet he posted Monday that said: “I need to go get me some #drebeats [headphones] so I can silence the haters ha all yall r like #flipflops.”
Most of Hightower’s tweets are Bible verses, with occasional observations on movies or his fondness for watching cartoons. But that post showed that Hightower has seen or heard some of the criticism of his play, and he noticed that after a good effort against Cleveland, the tune had changed.
On Wednesday, Hightower was asked about his play against the Browns — he was credited with a team-high 14 tackles (10 solo) and a quarterback hit by the coaching staff — but he credited the entire defense.
“It felt like any other game; the game plan was a little bit simpler, it was easier to get a grasp on, but I feel like everybody kind of knew what they were doing,” Hightower said. “Just because I had as many tackles as I did, it doesn’t mean that I played better this game than I did any other game, it’s just that everybody did their job and was in the right spots.”
As he talked, Hightower said a couple of times that he’s more concerned with getting wins than statistics, and if playing less is part of that, he understands.
“It doesn’t bother me. Again, I say I do whatever is asked of me to do,” Hightower said. “In certain situations Dane or Jamie [Collins] or whoever, they do a better job of whatever it is that’s [being] asked of them to do. It is what it is, no hard feelings about it, like I said, as long as we get the W, that’s all that matters.”
All of the players worry about being accountable to their teammates and the coaching staff, Hightower said.
Listed at 6 feet 3 inches, 270 pounds, Hightower has struggled most noticeably in pass coverage, though he’s had some poor games against the run, too.
Asked about Hightower, Bill Belichick was quick to say the 23-year-old has gotten “better each week” when it comes to on-field communication and calling the plays.
“He’s a smart guy. He definitely understands the defense,” Belichick said. “He’s had a lot of experience doing that at Alabama and running a defense; [the defense] they ran at Alabama also involved some checks and some recognition of different things formationally and multiple coverages.
“He’s a lot more comfortable with what we’re doing . . . He’s done a good job. It really hasn’t been an issue.”
However, when asked specifically about Hightower’s play in recent games, Belichick gave what would be best called a lukewarm assessment, and none of it specific to Hightower.
“I think you can look at any player and find plays that are good and you’ll find some plays that aren’t so good with every player, at every position, and every coach for that matter,” Belichick said. “We’ve all had our moments. We’ve all had some that we’d like to have back. We’ve all had some that we’re satisfied with. I think you can put every player in the same category on that . . .
“A play or two here or there, we’d all like to have back. There have been a couple plays that have made the difference in those games. I think that’s true for every player that’s practiced in those games on the entire roster.”
Stats: Dont’a Hightower’s up-and-down season
Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightowner’s tackle totals, according to film review by the Patriots coaches:
9/8, at Buffalo: 4
9/12, vs. NY Jets: 10
9/22, vs. Tampa Bay: 5
9/29, at Atlanta: 11
10/6, at Cincinnati: 7
10/13, vs. New Orleans: 0*
10/20, at NY Jets: 16**
10/27, vs. Miami: 12
11/3, vs. Pittsburgh: 4
11/18, at Carolina: 5
11/24, vs. Denver: 9
12/1, at Houston: 7
12/8, vs. Cleveland: 14
* — Season-low total
** — Season-high total