CLNS Media Patriots Beat reporter Evan Lazar’s annual list takes you through the ten most important Pats for the 2021 season.
Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower’s decision to opt-out due to the coronavirus pandemic was a massive blow for New England’s defense last season.
The three-time Super Bowl champion is highly skilled, highly intelligent, highly versatile, and plays with a nasty physicality that routinely puts 300-plus pound humans into the ground.
On and off the field, Hightower is a consummate leader who is a field general, tone-setter, and mentor in the locker room.
In 2019, one of Hightower’s best seasons, the Pats linebacker ranked eighth among all players and first among linebackers in Pro Football Reference’s approximate value metric.
Pats head coach Bill Belichick has perfected his role over the years, taking Hightower out of coverage and inserting him into the pass rush where he’s an absolute force.
The former first-round pick led all off-ball linebackers with 33 quarterback pressures after joining the rush on a position-high 277 passing plays, dropping into coverage just 190 times in 2019 (second-fewest among linebackers).
By using him sparingly in coverage, Belichick unlocked a downhill missile that makes an impact by attacking the line of scrimmage and getting involved in New England’s pass rush.
And Hightower’s football IQ and skill set allow him to cycle through the Patriots’ primary alignments for their linebackers: off the ball, in-line, or on the edge of the defense. In 2019, Hightower had a 60-40 split of snaps off the line and on the line, respectively.
The 31-year-old’s effectiveness as a pass rusher comes in many ways, but he’s at his best as a chess piece in New England’s pressure schemes.
#Patriots film: Pats run a TEX stunt with Hightower and Adam Butler. Hightower gets his moneys worth on every pass-rush rep. Center doesn't see him coming and Hightower tosses him. Pressure forces a bad throw on third down and a punt. pic.twitter.com/jEGFj5tccI
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) December 26, 2019
Here, Hightower lines up over the left tackle in a two-point stance and performs a TEX stunt with defensive tackle Adam Butler. The idea is to have Hightower penetrate and occupy both the left guard and center so that Butler can wrap around his rush for a free run at the quarterback. In this play, Bills center Mitch Morse doesn’t see Hightower slanting towards him and gets tossed to the side by the Pats linebacker on his way to Josh Allen. Hightower creates his own path to the quarterback by clearing out Morse and forces an errant throw by Allen, who misses an open receiver.
Hightower’s second sack was huge. #Patriots were in man and end up doubling at the bottom of the screen and leave the RB uncovered but Hightower catches the RG oversetting to the outside and dips inside for the sack. pic.twitter.com/ygpInvLc1O
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) February 6, 2019
Three seasons ago, Hightower was in the running for MVP of Super Bowl 53 after a two-sack performance and a whole lot of disruption on similar schemes as the one above.
Along with rushing the passer, the Pats linebacker is a force against the run, leading to 36 run stops in 2019, the most he’s had since 2016.
Let's talk about how insane this run stop by Dont'a Hightower was from Week 1, 2019. He's off the ball, left goal post over the bubble. Misdirection/counter play by the #Steelers. Hightower puts 320-pound Alejandro Villanueva into the ground and makes the play. #Patriots pic.twitter.com/fNACffYGXQ
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) July 16, 2020
In this play, the Steelers try to fool the Patriots’ defense with a reverse counter scheme, but Hightower isn’t fooled. Instead, the 260-pound Pats linebacker pancakes Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva (6-foot-9, 320 pounds) into the ground to shed and make the stop.
Tackles near the line of scrimmage after a physical encounter with an offensive lineman are a regular occurrence for Hightower, who drops bigger players like flies every week.
Although only 24 percent of his snaps came in coverage in 2019, Hightower’s 72.4 coverage grade was his best since 2016 as well.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) October 29, 2019
Here, the Browns set up a crossing route for slot receiver Jarvis Landry off of a hard play-action fake from under center. After one false step forward, Hightower instantly changes directions and falls underneath Landry’s route to force Baker Mayfield to his second option in the progression. Mayfield makes an excellent quarterback play to complete a pass along the sideline, but Hightower made it difficult on the Browns’ QB.
Hightower can cause havoc as a pass rusher, win in the trenches, consistently make plays against the run, and drop into coverage successfully, putting him in the elite category.
Although the Pats defense was headed for regression regardless, Hightower opting out last season led to a total collapse for New England on the defensive side of the ball.
The Patriots went from the top-ranked unit in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric in 2019 to 26th in Defense-adjusted value over average in 2020. New England also dropped from eighth against the run to dead-last, 32nd, which speaks directly to Hightower’s value.
New England has their versatile tone-setter back in the fold for the 2021 season, and with last year as proof, Dont’a Hightower is one of the most valuable players on the Pats roster.