FOXBOROUGH — Dont’a Hightower may have given himself a new nickname Wednesday, and it’s not one anyone who has lined up across from the big linebacker would ever guess.
“I’m the Trash Man,” said Hightower, who was driving home a point about not being concerned with statistics or attention. “I just play football.”
But, “Trash Man”?
“Doing the hard stuff, man,” he said with a wide smile. “Just doing the hard stuff, bro. Never have been a big newspaper dude; I just want to do my job and win.”
Hightower, who opted out last season, had the best game of his return season Sunday in the Patriots’ win over the Texans. He had five tackles, but as Jerod Mayo pointed out, the stat sheet doesn’t really do Hightower’s performance justice.
“If you were to watch the film and see his overall physicality, I would say it was by far his best game,” said Mayo. “High is definitely one of our smartest guys, not only on defense but on this football team.
“Now it’s just all about, ‘All right, how do we keep this guy going on a down-after-down basis and play at that high level?’ ”
Hightower has 19 tackles on the season, but his responsibilities go far beyond what can be found in the numbers. He has elite presnap recognition, allowing him to diagnose plays and put his front-seven comrades in the proper positions to make plays. His physical strength is apparent postsnap when he’s stunning offensive linemen to create space or swarming ball carriers.
“I’ve never been a big numbers guy,” said Hightower. “You can look back at high school, college, whatever y’all want to do, I’ve never been a numbers guy.
“I’m going to do whatever I need to do for the team, whether it’s knocking [the stuffing] out of the linemen, or if I’m supposed to have eight or 10 tackles a game, or eight sacks, then that’s what I plan on doing. I’m just going to do my job.
“I feel good, bro. As long as I’m doing my job and I’m putting my teammates in spots, whether it’s a pick game or making the right stunt call. Then I’m good.”
Bill Belichick pointed to Hightower’s versatility, intelligence, unselfishness, and strength as reasons why his perennial captain stands out.
“He’s so versatile that he’s a guy you can ask to do a lot of different things and he can handle a lot of different things,” the coach said. “It’s not necessarily the same every week, depending on what the priorities are. Pass rush, running game, end of the line, off the ball, handle the fronts, make coverage adjustments.
“He’s a smart player that he has such a good grasp of the defense and the offense that we’re playing. How to use the tools that we have and apply them to the situations that come up.”
But again, Trash Man?
“If he called himself that, he called himself that,” said fellow linebacker Matt Judon. “I think High’s a really good player and he does do a lot of dirty jobs for us, but he makes it look good. Like how he plays offensive linemen, takes on blocks, wins, defeats them. He does a lot of stuff for our defense.
“If he wants to be the Junk Man, he can be the Junk Man.’’
Left tackle Isaiah Wynn and left guard Mike Onwenu remained out of practice and on the COVID-19 reserve list. The two missed all of last week, though there’s a chance one or both could be cleared in time to play against the Cowboys Sunday. Running back Damien Harris (ribs) and right guard Shaq Mason (abdomen) were present during the media window but did not participate in practice … Rookie cornerback Shaun Wade (concussion) was the lone defender missing … The following players were limited: Offensive tackle Justin Herron (abdomen); linebackers Kyle Van Noy (groin), Ja’Whaun Bentley (shoulder), and Ronnie Perkins (ankle); cornerbacks Jalen Mills (ankle) and Jonathan Jones (ankle); safeties Kyle Dugger (hamstring) and Cody Davis (knee); and kicker Nick Folk (left knee) … The club signed safety Sean Davis to the practice squad a day after having him in for a tryout, and he was on the practice field … Linebacker Jahlani Tavai was signed to the 53-man roster.
Folk was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week after kicking four field goals (52, 52, 32, 21 yards), including the winner, against Houston. It’s the seventh such honor for Folk, and he joins Stephen Gostkowski (six times) and Adam Vinatieri (eight times) as Patriots kickers to earn the honor at least three times. “Nick’s been incredibly consistent,’’ said Belichick. “He’s done a great job for us” … Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, who has posted back-to-back 100-yard games, told reporters he bruised his ribs when he fell on a pylon against the Giants last week and that he will be spending a lot of time in the hot tub this week. “I might be a prune by the time we get to New England,” he said.