FOXBORO -- With a little over a minute left in New England's 23-21 win over Arizona, a funny thing happened.
The Patriots defense had just wiped out a screen pass from Carson Palmer to running back Andre Ellington after Dont'a Hightower -- on a knee he injured in the first quarter -- read the play immediately and funneled it back to the middle of the field for Jabaal Sheard to make the tackle, resulting in a four-yard loss. Suddenly, coach Bruce Arians' offense was facing a third-and-23 from the Patriots 47-yard line, needing a field goal to win.
As the Cardinals huddled up to talk over their next play, Hightower received the defenisve call from defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, got his teammates lined up, and observed Palmer barking signals at the line of scrimmage. Then, with about seven seconds left on the game clock, Hightower saw something he didn't like. Maybe it was the offensive formation. Maybe it was what he heard from Palmer. Maybe it was the way the Patriots were aligned. It was something.
The newly-minted Patriots captain jumped to call timeout before the ball was snapped, and NBC play-by-play man Al Michaels singled out Hightower for stopping the action.
A closer viewing of the replay reveals that a side judge actually comes sprinting to the middle of the field waving his arms a split second before Hightower forms the "T" with his hands. Bill Belichick had seen something himself, probably whatever Hightower did, and he called timeout from the sideline just a hair before Hightower did.
Never did the cliche "coach on the field" seem so apt. It was a nationally-televised example of Belichick and one of his most trusted players seeing the game as if through one set of eyes.
"Dont’a did exactly what we wanted him to do," Belichick said when asked about that timeout call the next day, careful not to reveal too much about his strategy. "Yeah, he did exactly what we wanted him to do there."
For the last three seasons, Hightower has been entrusted with making the calls his coaching staff wants him to make. In his second and third years, the duty was thrust upon him when fellow linebacker Jerod Mayo suffered season-ending injuries. Last year, he donned the green dot on his helmet, signifying he was the one communicating with Patricia, and before this season he was elected by his teammates to be one of New England's four captains.
Important as Hightower has been to the operation of the Patriots defense, his availability for Sunday's game against the Dolphins has been thrown into question as he has missed each of his team's first two practices this week due to the injury he suffered in Arizona. As an every-down player, his absence would affect all the Patriots do on that side of the ball if he missed any time.
Against the run, he's a force. When the 6-foot-3, 265-pounder was out injured last season, the Patriots went from allowing 3.7 yards per carry to 4.5 yards per carry. Against the pass, he has the athleticism to cover and he can be a devastating rusher. According to Pro Football Focus, who listed Hightower as a 4-3 outside linebacker last season, he had the second-most pressures of any other player at that spot -- 24 in just 109 pass-rush snaps. Last week he recorded a quarterback hit and two hurries while playing hurt for the majority of the contest.
Though his physical skill set is an impressive one, how Hightower gets the Patriots defense organized and into the right calls certainly has value in its own right. Against a Dolphins offense that is operating a new system under first-year coach Adam Gase, it's a skill that would be missed should he be sidelined.
"Dont’a does a great job of that," Belichick said. "He’s really smart, he’s very football smart, he has got very good instincts in all phases of the game, in the running game, in the passing game, as a pass rusher. He does all of those things well but he understands them well. He’s really smart. He can handle any of that. He can handle any coverage adjustments, he can handle the running game, he can handle pass-rush games, the strategy that we use there as a defensive linemen, so there’s really no issues with him at all."
"When he came here of course that was something that Jerod did and Jerod did it very well and it seemed like up until this year Jerod was really the primary communicator, and then it fell to Dont’a in the past couple of years after Jerod was injured . . . But in terms of his ability to do it, and his decision-making on the field, and understanding our game plan, and understanding what our opponents are doing, and how it all matches up, and when certain things should or shouldn’t apply, he’s very good at that. Very good."
If Hightower is at all limited on Sunday -- the Patriots will release their third and final injury report following Friday's practice -- linebacker Jonathan Freeny could be in line to see a bigger workload. Shea McClellin and sixth-round rookie Elandon Roberts, who was inactive against the Cardinals, could also see more playing time.
The green-dot duties may fall to Jamie Collins in that scenario, which is something he's done before and should be comfortable with, but there's a reason Hightower has been called upon to run the defensive huddle for significant portions of his career.
"Certainly, as a young player, when we got Dont’a [he was] a very smart, intelligent guy that understands a lot about conceptual football," Patricia said during a conference call earlier this week. "He can talk football and really try to visualize it and see it, and you can go through a lot of different situations with him.
"It’s very natural for him to control and handle a lot of things and a lot of different responsibilities, a lot of different positions that he does for us. It’s just part of the progression for him as a young player improving and stepping into a role where he’s honestly just very quite natural. He’s a guy that stands in front of the huddle and has stood in front of the huddle since he got here and a guy that played next to Jerod for a couple of years and got to see that same sort of player.
"Dont’a just does an excellent job of leading when he’s out there, so he’s certainly someone I rely on a lot. We talk a lot about the scheme and we talk a lot about what we’re trying to get done. He’s a guy for me that is out on the field but is really the voice that’s coming through of what we’re trying to get done. A really smart player. Very tough, physical. All the ability, but just a really smart football player."
If against Miami's new-look offense Hightower should be out for any period of time, that intelligence will be missed.