FOXBORO – Nobody has to remind Dont'a Hightower that he’s got an injury history. He knows it better than anyone. He’s lived it. Every season since he got to the league.
But reminders in the form of questions inevitably come. They came on Thursday after the Patriots first practice of 2018 training camp.
It was Hightower’s first true practice since last October, when he tore a pectoral muscle against the Falcons. He played a career-low five games last year and, while we’ve spent hours upon hours talking about the guy who saved a Super Bowl but didn’t play against the Eagles, we’ve spent considerably less time talking about the guy who saved two Super Bowls and also didn’t play vs. Philly.
There are two hard facts about Hightower that most everyone can agree upon as he enters his seventh NFL season. He’s the defensive player the Patriots can least afford to do without. At some point every season, the team will have to do without him.
I asked him why he thinks some players at his position can go blissfully along, year after year, and somehow steer clear of major injury.
“If I knew that answer, I’d be out there for 16 games,” he laughed. “It is hard and everybody plays different. The position I play and what they ask me to do . . . it’s a lot but it’s the best of both worlds, whether it’s rushing the passer or banging heads with a center or guard. But at the end of the day, it’s part of football and everybody’s body is a little bit different.
“All I can do is focus on trying to stay healthy,” he added. “Honest and truly. There’s nothing I can do aside from that. I’m not going to change the way I've been playing for 18-20 years. I can’t do that. But realistically, from what I’ve been doing, I feel great. I’ve still got a ways to go but as far as coming back in the offseason. This is the best I’ve felt. I had a great OTA. I was flying around, so I’m just gonna stay on the same plan I’ve been on . . .
“It would mean a lot (to play 16 games),” he said. “I definitely put in a lot of work in the offseason. I haven’t done it yet. It’s important to me because those games I miss it hurts less for me and more because I feel I’m letting down my teammates.”
Until the practices begin to stack up and a preseason game is played, there isn’t a lot new to talk about. So a portion of our time with Hightower inevitably involved how the team will dispatch what happened in the Super Bowl.
“I can’t speak for everyone else but for me, I got a lot on my plate,” he said. “The way the season ended last year, I got my own goals for myself and I want to be able to contribute a lot more than I did last year. The stuff that happened last year doesn’t matter to me as much as being focused on what I have to do this year. Ain’t nobody worried about what happened last year.”
At this time last year, the Patriots were working to diversify Hightower’s role. Though he’d played plenty on the edge in his first six seasons, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia had him there almost exclusively in the first few weeks stepping in for the freshly-retired Rob Ninkovich. Eventually, with the struggling to get its assignments communicated correctly, Hightower moved back to inside linebacker.
This year, with Adrian Clayborn signed as a free agent and Trey Flowers an established edge guy, Hightower may find himself back in the middle, in the command center. On Thursday, he talked about the linebacker group and the quick learning that Hightower says is going on under Brian Flores, the acting defensive coordinator with Patricia gone.
“It’s a little different (with Flores),” he said. “The approach is definitely different. I think guys are learning it a lot better, a lot easier. I think a lot of young guys are stepping up and able to pick up with some of the older guys so it definitely works in our favor.”
How is it different?
“The way he teaches it,” said Hightower. “The way guys absorb it a little bit different. We meet a little different. We talk about things a little different. Just small, quirky things that you necessarily can’t put a finger on. But it’s obvious when you have first-year guys come in or guys who just signed come in and pick things up you can tell there’s a difference somewhere along the line. It helps everyone on the field when everybody knows what they’re doing. You can play faster and do different things. Whatever he’s doing is working.”
It’s impossible to hear that and not take it as a harsh review of Patricia’s schemes. But, as they say, it is what it is. Despite the annual head coaching courtship of Patricia before he got the Lions job, the performance of the Patriots defense was frequently passive and uneven.
If they play faster and bring more pressure under Flores, that will be a departure from what we’ve grown accustomed to. Will that be better? Honestly, it can’t hurt.
And if Hightower himself can avoid getting hurt, that will help the defense more than anything.