FOXBOROUGH — Dont’a Hightower’s numbers on the stat sheet have been as eye-popping as his hits on the field have been pad-popping.
The Patriots linebacker racked up 10 tackles in Sunday’s 30-23 win over the Jets. Even more impressive than the double-digit total was the fact that Hightower’s stops were all of the solo variety. There was no piling on or stat-padding for the 6-foot-3-inch, 265-pounder.
Hightower is a three-down player who excels at run stuffing and pass rushing, and is no liability in pass coverage, either.
The game was quite a return for Hightower, who suffered a rib injury early on against the Cowboys and missed the Colts game. If he was feeling any ill affects Sunday, it didn’t show. Hightower played 99 percent of the 72 defensive snaps as the Patriots employed a mostly two-linebacker scheme. Jamie Collins played 100 percent of the snaps, while Jonathan Freeny played 31 percent.
Asked how he felt Wednesday, Hightower said, “I feel like I played a game a couple of days ago.’’
That may be the understatement of the season.
Hightower came charging out of the gate. On the second play from scrimmage, he recovered Ryan Fitzpatrick’s fumble, a result of Chandler Jones’s strip sack.
On New York’s second series, Hightower had a highlight play. Charging through a lane, he ducked fullback Tommy Bohanon’s block and blew past a phantom effort from James Carpenter. He then met Zac Stacy head on and wrapped him for no gain.
He was at his monstrous best on the third series. Though it culminated in a Jets touchdown, Hightower was everywhere, making six tackles on the 14-play drive. The best of the bunch was a stop for no gain on Chris Ivory. Hightower slid down the line, picked the same lane as Ivory, and the resulting collision resulted in no gain.
It was a play that summed up the Patriots’ plan of attack on Ivory, who came in as one of the league’s top rushers but was held to a season-low 41 yards on 17 carries.
Perhaps Hightower’s best play came on New York’s final drive of the first half. On third and 3, Hightower was lined up on the defensive right. He came full bore at the snap and flattened rugged Jets center Nick Mangold (no easy task). As Hightower was stepping over the grounded Jet and toward Fitzpatrick, Carpenter slid over and knocked him off balance.
By occupying both Mangold and Carpenter, Hightower allowed Collins to make a beeline to Fitzpatrick and bring him down for a 12-yard sack.
Hightower’s presence has certainly caught the attention of new Dolphins coach Dan Campbell, who was singing the linebacker’s praises Tuesday.
“I think he’s a strong player, he hits like a defensive lineman,’’ said Campbell. “I think he’s explosive, I think he makes plays, I think he sets a good edge. I think he is good in coverage. He’s another guy that presents issues for us up front, because he can do a little bit of everything.’’
Campbell said Hightower’s emergence bodes well for the Patriots. But maybe not so much for the rest of the AFC East.
“Watching these guys that have been there that were young guys that are now developing, it’s pretty impressive,’’ he said. “If you’re a Patriots fan you’re loving it. Between Collins and Hightower, there’s a number of these guys, every year they’ve gotten better and better, they’re pretty damn good football players.’’
Informed of Campbell’s comment that he hits like a defensive lineman, Hightower agreed.
“I feel like physicality is one of my strong points,’’ he said. “The defense, that’s something we all try to bring and me being a linebacker being physical is definitely something you want to bring.’’
As impressed as Campbell is about Hightower, the linebacker is similarly impressed by how the fledgling coach has turned the Dolphins’ fortunes around.
“Definitely a big spark [since Campbell took over]. You know, what they do they do it well,’’ he said. “Can’t say it’s not complicated what they do. [Quarterback Ryan] Tannehill does a great job . . . all the receivers . . . all the running backs that they put in there, they all know how to work the system and obviously these past two games you can definitely tell that if you’re not ready to play or even if you are ready to play, those guys can score from all different angles.’’
Asked what he thought was the biggest change between the team that lost three straight to the team currently riding a two-game winning streak, Hightower said it was simple.
“Just a lot of juice,’’ he said “They look like a different team. They’re out there playing. Just having more fun.’’
Hightower said running back Lamar Miller has been a particular standout during the Dolphins’ resurgence.
“Obviously the last two games [Miller] is having a lot of productivity,’’ he said. “We respect his speed and the way he is between the tackles . . . Seems like everybody wants to make big plays and that’s what they’re doing . . . We just have to find a way to attack that offense.’’
Though he specializes in solo tackles, Hightower knows he won’t be attacking that offense on his own.
“Knowing that I got 10 other guys depending on me and knowing that they got my back … it helps me play even harder and even faster,’’ he said. “With this defense, we’ve all kind of built a brotherhood. We’re all kinda committed and everybody steps up to what everybody expects them to do. So they expect me to come out and play hard and that’s what I’m going to do.’’