FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots’ success over the last 17 years has included a few constants: Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and a smart, reliable, physical, and aggressive middle linebacker.
“That linebacker position is so important. Every good defense has a good middle linebacker,” Brady said.
The Patriots have had some special ones in Brady’s tenure — Ted Johnson, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, and Jerod Mayo.
That lineage continues with Dont’a Hightower, the Patriots’ fifth-year linebacker and defensive leader. The comparison makes him break into a bashful grin.
“That’s saying a lot right there,” Hightower said last week as he prepared for Sunday’s game against the Steelers. “I definitely lean on a lot of those guys. Still talk to Mayo day in and day out. I talk to Tedy when I can. I talk to Willie Mac [Willie McGinest] throughout the year. Still try to gain a lot of knowledge from those guys. They see a lot of stuff. It says a lot for me to kind of be put in that and I appreciate it.”
The NFL has changed a lot since Johnson and Bruschi patrolled the middle of the defense, and even since Mayo was drafted 10th overall in 2008. It’s much more of a passing league now, with greater emphasis on leaner, faster linebackers who can run with tight ends and running backs.
But Hightower is a throwback, a 6-foot-3-inch, 265-pound mauler who has the strength to overpower offensive linemen and the speed to chase down running backs.
Hightower’s athleticism can often be overshadowed by the athleticism of Jamie Collins, who at 6-3, 250 can somehow string together eight consecutive backflips. But Hightower’s versatility was on full display in last week’s win over Cincinnati, when he had a team-high 13 tackles and 1½ sacks, one of which was a safety that sparked the Patriots after a sluggish first half.
“It’s crazy what he can do,” rookie linebacker Elandon Roberts said. “Dont’a can take on an offensive lineman and also at the same time cover a tight end, and at about 260, you don’t see that. And he can run with them all. He’s just an explosive guy.”
Belichick praised Hightower’s athleticism on his sack/safety of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton last week. Dalton almost slipped out of Hightower’s grasp, but the linebacker snagged Dalton by the jersey and threw him violently to the ground.
“He made a real good play to athletically shift all of his momentum over and be able to tackle Dalton, who’s not the easiest guy to tackle in the pocket,” Belichick said. “High’s got a lot of skills, a lot of things he can do. He can blitz, he can rush, he can cover, he can play the run, he can run and play in coverage. And he’s smart, too. He’s pretty versatile. He can handle a lot of different assignments and not only just knowing what to do but instinctively he handles those well.”
But it’s Hightower’s brain that has helped him emerge as one of the NFL’s best young linebackers. Collins might be the more explosive athlete, and might get a bigger contract in free agency next offseason — both Collins and Hightower are set to be unrestricted free agents in March — but Hightower is the more consistent player.
He’s the one who was elected a captain by his teammates, wears the green communication dot, gets his teammates lined up properly, and sniffs out a play before it’s even snapped, like Bruschi and Mayo before him. If the Patriots have to choose between Hightower and Collins in free agency, Hightower’s leadership and instincts probably give him the edge.
“There’s a lot of responsibly that’s put on you at linebacker. You call the defense most of the time, if not all the time, and he’s done such a great job of that,” Brady said. “He’s really got a great understanding of the game, and the plays that he’s been making — sacking the quarterback in the end zone, intercepting passes, knocking the ball out, tackles — it’s been great. He and Jamie, I mean, they’re both spectacular players.”
It’s probably not a coincidence that the Patriots’ worst defensive performance of the season (457 yards, 24 points allowed to the Dolphins in Week 2) came with Hightower out with a knee injury, and that the Bills ran all over the Patriots in Week 4 when Hightower was in the lineup but still hobbled by the injury.
“He’s so smart that he can line anybody up, and I think he embraces that role of leading the defense,” said free safety Devin McCourty. “A lot of times he’s in the middle, he’s pointing left, he’s pointing right, lining guys up, telling them what he wants to do. I definitely think he follows that line and that breed of middle linebackers.”
“The offense could come out in a funky type of formation, and Dont’a gets it all right — like, ‘Hey, do this, this, and this,’ and that’s just from years under his belt,” Roberts added.
Hightower has started in 55 of his 58 games since the Patriots drafted him 25th overall in 2012, and had a good mentor in Mayo during his first four seasons. Mayo retired after the 2015 season but stayed in New England and remains in weekly contact with his protégé.
“He shoots me a couple texts every now and then about certain plays and stuff,” Hightower said. “He’s still a great teacher.”
Hightower came to the Patriots more NFL-ready than most defensive players thanks to his experience playing for former Belichick assistant Nick Saban at Alabama.
“A lot of what he does now is what he did at ’Bama,” McCourty said. “And it’s hard not to learn from Mayo, a guy who really just knew everything about the team.”
Teammates have observed Hightower embracing the leadership role handed down from Bruschi and Mayo.
“I think Dont’a is coming into his own. He’s put a lot of work into improving himself as a player, and I know myself and a lot of the older guys have challenged him to embrace a leadership role and I think we’re seeing that this year,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said. “Dont’a is unique in his own way. He’s got things that make him different than Jerod and Tedy and even Junior [Seau] and those guys, but in his own way he brings a lot to the table and he’s a very special player.”