Patriots’ defensive success hinges on one thing: versatility
FOXBOROUGH — Dont’a Hightower’s favorite game is football — but he plays a pretty mean game of hide-and-seek, too.
In fact, the Patriots captain is so dominant at the latter that he plays both the hider and the seeker. First, he hides in multiple spots in New England’s defensive packages, then he seeks and destroys the ball carrier.
Hightower’s ability to adjust and adapt to the many roles he’s asked to perform is what separates him from most linebackers. He relishes being able to impact the game in different ways and from different angles, not only from possession to possession but from play to play.
“I love that a lot,” he said. “I know what kind of player I am. I’m not a prototypical linebacker or a prototypical defensive end. I can kind of do a little bit of both. My versatility really helps in this defense particularly.’’
Finding players who can morph into multiple positions, who can emulate and imitate Hightower’s versatility — who can play hide-and-seek — will be the key to this defense’s success in 2018.
“I think in talking to the coaches, that is very important,’’ said Devin McCourty, who has earned Pro Bowl nods at cornerback and safety. “It allows them to come up with different ideas on defense, and they can feel confident, like, ‘Hey we’ve got the guys that can do this.’ ’’
Additionally, it deepens the depth chart.
“If we lose a guy or something happens, we’ve got another guy who’s already playing this position that could easily switch down to this position,’’ McCourty said.
Hightower believes the pieces are in place for a successful defense.
“We have a lot of guys playing different spots, and that keeps the offense on their toes, not knowing who’s coming, who’s dropping, who’s covering,’’ he said. “We’ve got a lot of linebackers that can do that. We’ve got a lot of defensive ends that can do that as well.
“I think we’ll do all we can to utilize everybody’s skill set, so I’m really looking forward to this year.’’
Hightower’s return to the front seven is the biggest reason this defense has a chance to be one of the Patriots’ best in recent years. He was sidelined by a torn pectoral after five games last season, and though he was out of sight, he was never out of the minds of his guys.
“For the most part, I rehabbed elsewhere,” Hightower said. “But I still was in a lot of the group chats with the linebackers.’’
His contributions to those chats often included postgame encouragement and constructive criticism. “I would just shoot them a text after the game: ‘Good job on this,’ or ‘Next time look at this and learn from this,’ ’’ Hightower said. “I just tried to really do what I could do to stay involved.’’
Hightower is excited to get back in the mix with some of the players who gained experience — and developed versatility — by playing in his stead last year. While warning that there’s still work to be done, Hightower thinks this batch of linebackers has a chance to be special.
“I think we can be a lot better; our timing and chemistry is still being built,’’ he said. “But I feel like we have a nice group. We’ve got a lot of versatility in that room. A lot of us can do a lot of different things, whether it’s covering, dropping, or blitzing.’’
The competitive level among the linebackers is what keeps them sharp.
“We really use that to our benefit, whether it’s motivating each other or competing against each other in one-on-ones in practice to see who can make more plays,’’ Hightower said.
Kyle Van Noy is poised to see the most snaps alongside Hightower as the Patriots play a lot of nickel and dime sets. The fifth-year veteran continues to develop into a dependable three-down player. He has anticipation and toughness and will show a nice closing burst.
Rookie Ja’Whaun Bentley has had an exceptional summer. Billed as a downhill thumper coming out of Purdue — and he is that — he also has shown during his brief time as a pro that he can backpedal and blanket when the situation calls for it.
Bentley is very instinctive and uses obvious power and deceptive quickness to sift through traffic and get to the ball. He’s going to be fan favorite because he has the ability to change a game’s momentum with a thunderous hit.
Elandon Roberts is a run-stuffing specialist. Nicholas Grigsby (he plays football as if he’s in a demolition derby) and Brandon King (he has NASCAR speed) provide depth, but the bulk of their contributions will come in the kicking game.
The defensive line is the deepest it’s been in a while, with a nice collection of established veterans and rising young contributors.
In the middle, there’s a ton of beef with Malcom Brown, Danny Shelton, and Adam Butler.
Brown has obvious size and power but also deceptive quickness and speed. He never gives up on a play, and his back-side pursuit and closing burst are impressive for a man of his size.
Shelton has been a bear all summer (not sure he lost a single one-on-one battle in camp). He has outstanding size and knee bend, making him nearly impossible to move off his spot. The man can occupy blockers and create space. Butler is sneaky fast to the quarterback.
Off the edge, New England added effective pass rusher Adrian Clayborn to go along with developing edge men Deatrich Wise Jr. and Derek Rivers. Clayborn gets low and will bull-rush blockers. Wise has outstanding length and power, and Rivers has a quick first step.
In addition, there’s a trio of guys who will play inside or outside, given the situation — there’s that versatility again.
Trey Flowers is the team’s top pass rusher. He can simply overwhelm blockers off the edge with his power and technique, and his quickness and relentlessness allow him to be disruptive in the middle.
Lawrence Guy is equally comfortable playing on the end of the line or right in the thick of things. An eight-year veteran, he appears to be getting better with age.
Keionta Davis was another summer standout. His thickness and quickness make him tough to handle. With some seasoning and polish, he could develop into a Flowers-like force.
A secondary that already was a strength has gotten deeper with the infusion of three young corners and another McCourty.
Jason McCourty joins his brother for Year 10 of his career, and he proved this summer that he can still be an effective corner while also adding safety to his résumé.
The safety trio of Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon is one of the league’s most valuable and versatile.
Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe will man the outside corners, with the former often drawing the opponent’s top receiver. Gilmore played at an elite level over the second half of 2017.
Rookies J.C. Jackson, Keion Crossen, and Duke Dawson will join Jonathan Jones in a battle for the third cornerback spot. Jackson and Crossen have shined at times during the spring and summer, while Dawson has been limited lately because of an undisclosed injury.