Patriots

Curran: Hard to ignore Hightower's massive impact in win vs. Bengals

Curran: Hard to ignore Hightower's massive impact in win vs. Bengals

FOXBORO -- There was a play last week in Cleveland when Dont'a Hightower arrived just after a tackle was made and hurdled the accident scene.

That move indicated to me that Hightower’s knee, which cost him two games and left him a little slowed against the Bills, was back to normal. He said as much last week when I asked him about it.

Sunday against the Bengals, he did more than hurdle the carnage. Hightower created it. Without his running mate, Jamie Collins, next to him Hightower took it to the next level with 13 tackles, 1.5 sacks and -- for the second straight week -- a forced safety on an A-gap blitz.

Hightower made himself scarce after the game but there was no shortage of teammates ready to talk about the massive impact the versatile linebacker makes.

PATRIOTS 35, BENGALS 17: 

“I get to go against him in practice every day and he’s just, he’s a great player,” said Tom Brady. “I’ve seen him grow from where he was at as a rookie, and then to take on a leadership role. That linebacker position is so important. Every good defense has a good middle linebacker. I’ve played against a lot of great ones, and Dont’a has been just a privilege to play with. He gets those other guys going, between he and Jamie [Collins] and the secondary; the middle of the defense with Patrick [Chung] and Devin [McCourty], Duron [Harmon] and the corners. Up front, we’re figuring out a way to get to the quarterback, so we’re doing a great job. It’s fun to watch those guys play because I get sick of practicing against them and seeing them make plays on me, so it’s nice to see them make plays on the other team.”

There were four plays in particular Sunday that showcased different aspects of Hightower’s skill set. All, though, had this in common: His smarts and anticipation.

On the first, he came off the left edge of the offensive line and, seeing Bengals running back Gio Bernard looking to turn the corner around the right end, Hightower flattened out and – in a blink – was on Bernard and dropping him for a loss.

On the fourth-and-goal play from the Patriots 1, Hightower wasn’t in on the initial hit, but he powered his man back and through the hole Bernard was trying to find, cluttering it up so it was just a mass of humans nobody was getting through.

In the second half, Bernard caught a pass in the right flat at the Patriots’ 8. Hightower made it to the sideline before Bernard could string anything together and ran him out of bounds for a 3-yard gain.

Finally, on the sack/safety, Hightower came on an A-gap blitz that was similar to the one in Cleveland that caused a safety. Except this time, he delayed and made sure he had no other responsibilities before hitting the gas and exploding into Andy Dalton’s face before the Cincinnati quarterback had a chance to react.

“He’s awesome,” said veteran defensive end Chris Long. “He’s such a smart football player, he’s really physical, he’s really athletic. He creates matchup problems with people and as a teammate he’s always, from day one being a new guy, he’s always helped me get lined up. [He’s] never too busy to answer a question or help out, so he’s a selfless guy and that’s why he fits right in . . . he’s a real football player and that’s the best compliment I can give someone.”

As breathtakingly athletic as Collins can be, Hightower’s ability to be a factor in the interior running game and his ability to take command of the defense sets him apart. The complementary abilities they bring actually make them one of the league’s most daunting combos.

“Our linebackers, Jamie, Dont'a, they're two of the best in the league,” said Harmon. “Any time we can have those guys out there, they just continue to create havoc. They make plays, they make it easier for us, especially me, the quarterback can't look off as long when Dont'a's all in his face -- him and Jamie. Having him on the field is a plus. And when you get both of them on the field it's a double-plus.”

That last part, of course, is the sticky issue going forward. Both play a position that wears a body out. A hip kept Collins down on Sunday. Both are Pro Bowl-level players in their prime and both are free agents at the end of the year. There’s no doubting the Patriots want them to stick around, but coming to the right agreement for both sides is not going to be easy.  

Nobody saw Hightower’s potential earlier than Bill Belichick, who had this to say Sunday, “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. He’s got good feel, and rush techniques, and leverage and that kind of thing. Same thing – it could be in the passing game. He’s a good player and he had some big plays for us today; no question.”

He has a lot of those games. 

Patriots confirm coaching changes, front office promotions for 2020 season

Patriots confirm coaching changes, front office promotions for 2020 season

The puzzle pieces of the New England Patriots' coaching staff and front office have fallen into place.

The Patriots saw turnover in both departments this offseason, as longtime offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia retired while director of college scouting Monti Ossenfort joined the Houston Texans as their director of player personnel.

The club also welcomed some new faces, including former Los Angeles Rams offensive assistant Jedd Fisch (the team's new quarterbacks coach) and ex-Cleveland Browns executive Eliot Wolf.

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So, how have the coaching staff and front office changed since last season? The Patriots have unveiled their 2020 media guide, which confirmed the new roles of several staffers.

Here's a rundown of the notable changes:

- Troy Brown officially is on staff as a running backs and kick returners coach. The former Patriots wide receiver will work with head running backs coach Ivan Fears and special teams assistant Joe Houston.

- Director of pro scouting Dave Ziegler has been promoted to assistant director of player personnel, reporting to director of player personnel Nick Caserio. He'll essentially fill Ossenfort's former role.

- Tyler Hughes, who reportedly joined the team in June, is listed as an "offensive assistant." Hughes most recently was the head coach at Bountiful (Utah) High School.

- Vinnie Sunseri joins the Patriots as a defensive assistant after spending the 2019 season as a graduate assistant for Nick Saban at Alabama. Sunseri had a brief stint in New England as a player during 2016 training camp.

- Wolf's official title is "scouting consultant." He served as Cleveland's assistant general manager in 2018 and 2019 after 14 seasons with the Green Bay Packers.

The Patriots go through personnel changes every year, but 2020 presents a unique challenge: Not only has COVID-19 prevented staff members from meeting in-person, but the club has lost a lengthy list of core veterans to free agency (Tom Brady, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, etc.) and opt-outs (Dont'a Hightower, Patrick Chung, Marcus Cannon, etc.) this offseason.

Head coach Bill Belichick isn't one to make excuses, though, so expect his staff to be hard at work this week as the Patriots begin on-field training camp work at Gillette Stadium.

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NFL opt-outs: Complete list of players who won't play in 2020 season

NFL opt-outs: Complete list of players who won't play in 2020 season

NFL training camps officially began Tuesday, but there were some notable absences.

Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif became the first NFL player to opt out of the 2020 season last Friday, citing health concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Since then, multiple players have followed suit, continuing a trend across all major North American professional sports of players declining to participate in their seasons as COVID-19 persists in the United States.

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The Patriots especially have felt the impact of this trend: Six New England players -- including star linebacker Dont'a Hightower -- already have opted out, the most of any NFL team.

Below is a running list of the players who have opted out of the 2020 NFL season, according to reports or team/player confirmations. The list is sorted alphabetically after the Patriots, with the date of the players' opt-outs in parentheses.

New England Patriots

RB Brandon Bolden (July 28)
OT Marcus Cannon (July 28)
S Patrick Chung (July 28)
LB Dont'a Hightower (July 28)
WR Marqise Lee (August 1)
OG Najee Toran (July 27)
FB Danny Vitale (July 27)
TE Matt LaCosse (August 2)

Arizona Cardinals

OT Marcus Gilbert (August 4)

Baltimore Ravens

OT Andre Smith (July 28)
WR/KR De'Anthony Thomas (July 27)

Buffalo Bills

CB E.J. Gaines (August 2)
DT Star Lotulelei (July 28)

Carolina Panthers

LB Jordan Mack (July 28)
LB Christian Miller (August 3)

Chicago Bears

DT Eddie Goldman (July 28)
S Jordan Lucas (August 3)

Cincinnati Bengals

OT Isaiah Prince (July 31)
DT Josh Tupou (July 31)

Cleveland Browns

DT Andrew Billings (August 4)
OL Drake Dorbeck (July 29)
OL Drew Forbes (July 29)

Dallas Cowboys

CB Maurice Canady (July 27)
WR Stephen Guidry (July 28)
FB Jamize Olawale (Aug. 2)

Denver Broncos

OT JaWuan James (Aug. 3)
DT Kyle Peko (July 28)

Detroit Lions

DT John Atkins (July 29)
WR Geronimo Allison (Aug. 2)

Green Bay Packers

WR Devin Funchess (July 28)

Houston Texans

DT Eddie Vanderdoes (July 28)

Jacksonville Jaguars

EDGE Larentee McCray (August 1)
DL Al Woods (July 31)

Kansas City Chiefs

OG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (July 24)
RB Damien Williams (July 29)

Las Vegas Raiders

CB D.J. Killings (August 3)
DE Jeremiah Valoaga (August 3)

Los Angeles Rams

OT Chandler Brewer (July 31)

Miami Dolphins

WR Allen Hurns (August 4)

Minnesota Vikings

NT Michael Pierce (July 28)

New Orleans Saints

TE Jason Vander Laan (July 28)
TE Cole Wick (July 28)

New York Giants

WR Da'Mari Scott (August 2)
LT Nate Solder (July 29)

New York Jets

OL Leo Koloamatangi (July 28)
LB CJ Mosley (August 1)

Philadelphia Eagles

WR Marquise Goodwin (July 28)

Seattle Seahawks

OG Chance Warmack (July 27)

Tennessee Titans

OL Anthony McKinney (July 28)

Washington Football Team

DT Caleb Brantley (July 27)
LB Josh Harvey-Clemons (August 3)

Free Agents

G Larry Warford (July 28)