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.
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“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.