FOXBOROUGH — Dont’a Hightower is no stranger to the training room. The Patriots linebacker has played a full 16-game NFL season just once in six years, and he missed most of his sophomore season at Alabama after tearing ligaments in his left knee.
Before last year, though, he’d always been healthy for the playoffs. Most of his NFL injuries had been ones he could try to play through in an important game. When he tore a pectoral muscle in Week 8 of last season, though, he was done.
“You know, you’re used to missing a couple games and being able to fight through it, but this year I wasn’t able to do that,” Hightower said Thursday after the Patriots OTA session. “So, I’m trying to take every measure I can to prevent that from happening again.”
Hightower has been working with Dr. James Andrews, who gave the second opinion that Hightower indeed needed season-ending surgery last year, to strengthen the ligaments and other connective tissues that are often at the root of sports injuries.
“It made me sit down and talk to Dr. Andrews and a lot of guys that I work with in the offseason as far as preventive matters to help strengthen those small ligament things that a lot of guys have a problem with, whether it’s rolling an ankle or spraining an AC joint or something,” Hightower said.
Hightower probably is taking this approach in part because he’s often labeled as injury-prone. The knee injury he suffered at Alabama was one that often causes problems for players down the line, and Hightower has suffered from knee and ankle injuries on and off throughout his career.
He said Thursday that he’s still rehabbing, but that he’s been able to do all of the drills and training-room work the rest of his healthy teammates have been doing during OTAs.
“I’m not going to say I’m 100 percent, but I feel good, no problems,” he said, though he also said he wouldn’t know for sure until contact practices start.
The Patriots had planned on having Hightower run their defense from the middle linebacker spot but had to coach up Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts into bigger roles once he went down. Van Noy had been playing off the edge; he spent more time playing off the line once Hightower went out, a move that seemed to hurt New England’s pass rush.
“He’s a guy that, he’s been here, he’s a huge part of our communication and everything we do defensively,” said teammate Devin McCourty. “I always say when you have good players out there and guys that have a ton of experience, you always miss them.”
McCourty said the Patriots, who finished the 2017 season with the league’s worst pass rush according to Pro Football Focus, had to learn how to play without Hightower. Some players, like linebacker Marquis Flowers or edge rusher Eric Lee, did seem to make strides, though they couldn’t replace Hightower’s talent or production.
“So now you add him back, I think everyone around him was forced to get better last year, so you hope in turn that makes us a better team this year,” said McCourty. “And he’s been able to come back in there and not miss a beat.”
For Hightower’s part, he hopes he’s gotten better too. He said he watched a lot of his own film while he was out, and worked with coaching assistant DeMarcus Covington to deepen his understanding of New England’s defense.
Specifically, Hightower wanted to better understand man-to-man coverage, something he said the Patriots had been working on more. He wanted to understand the philosophy behind it to know why they’d be playing certain coverages, not just how he’s supposed to play them.
“A little bit deeper than ‘What is Cover 2 or Cover 5 or why did we run that?’ ” Hightower said. “Picking some of the offensive guys’ brains, like [Brian] Hoyer or [Tom] Brady, like ‘Whenever we’re in Cover 2, what are you looking at? We’re doubling over here, so what are you looking at?’ ”
He tried to make good use of his lost time, even though there was no making up for it. Most painful was watching the Patriots lose in the Super Bowl.
As the team struggled on defense, getting pressure on just 30 percent of plays according to PFF and never sacking Nick Foles, Hightower wished he could at least try to help.
“To say me playing in the game, that would have changed a big output of the game, that’s definitely not what I’m saying,” he said. “Philly is a damn good team and they went out and they proved that. But, man, it did [hurt].”