Dont'a Hightower, Patriots defense meeting after meetings to get on same page

Dont'a Hightower, Patriots defense meeting after meetings to get on same page

FOXBORO -- When Patriots front-seven defenders broke their meeting and headed into the locker room, the meeting never . . . really . . . broke up. 

Dont'a Hightower, Lawrence Guy, Keionta Davis and others huddled in front of the lockers of the team's defensive linemen, and they chatted for a good 10 or 15 minutes as reporters took up a chunk of the locker room nearby. 

"It's real important. Not that we're lacking but I think that's something that we've really took more hands-on with trying to be a lot more detailed," Hightower said, referencing the back-and-forth with reporters the following day. "We put it upon ourselves to split up and spend more time on it. It kind of went on a little bit longer than we wanted it to, but just really trying to get everything down pat.

"When everybody knows what everybody else is doing we're able to play faster so we're trying to do everything we can to be more knowledgeable on anything that could happen."

Playing faster will be key Sunday when the Patriots take on the Dolphins and an offense that is propelled by its team speed. Motions, sweeps, horizontal field-stretchers and vertical field-stretchers all figure to contribute to the Miami game plan, and the first line of defense will be asked to provide more resistance than it did against the Lions last weekend. 

Hightower emphasized seeing things through one set of eyes as a front-seven group. That's a favorite axiom of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, but eh concept applies defensively as well. 

If everyone can understand what's happening in front of them, then the group can play more confidently and with more speed. Impromptu meetings like the one Hightower helped run on Wednesday can help.

"It's good. It's good to kind of see what perceptions are going throughout," he said. "Why we're doing this. A lot of times it will help guys maybe see things or play things a lot quicker, knowing what to expect and kind of what everybody else sees. Any time all 11 guys can be on the same page and see the same things at the same time, guys can play and react a little quicker. 

"Any time you can have that dialogue, not only with the coaches but amongst yourselves, you can kind of know what we're expecting being on the field together. It helps."

The Patriots have several new faces in the front-seven, even after their rookie middle linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley hit injured reserve earlier this week. Derek Rivers is seeing his first regular-season action as a pro. Same goes for Davis. Danny Shelton was acquired via trade this offseason and Adrian Clayborn was signed in free agency. 

With Bentley unavailable, it's possible that Hightower sees more time off the line of scrimmage. He's among the team's most versatile defenders, playing both in the middle of the defense and at the end of the line as an edge defender. But he's among the favorites to serve as the unit's primary signal-caller on the receiving end of the coach-to-player communication system -- signaled by having the green dot on his helmet -- because he's done it so often in the past. 

Last year, when the Patriots defense was having clear communication issues, Hightower seemed to spend less time on the edge and more time in the middle, where he can better serve as traffic cop for the defense. 

On this week's Quick Slants the Podcast, I asked Jerod Mayo if he thought a move back to the middle for Hightower would benefit the defense. He agreed, in part because he'd have the freedom to mix up some of the front-seven looks, which could positively impact a run defense that is struggling at the moment.

"I definitely agree with you when you said put Hightower back in the middle," he said. "There's no stunting even on the run. There's no run-stunting. There's a difference between pass-stunting and run-stunting. 

"I feel like when you have young linebackers inside whether it's [Elandon] Roberts or anyone else in there, or Bentley, they're sitting there like, 'Listen, this is your gap, this is your responsibility, and [they] doesn't have the freedom to move guys at will . . . If I moved Vince [Wilfork] in the 'A' gap then I had the opposite 'A' gap. Right now, they're so vanilla on defense -- at least in the front against the run game -- that people are just gashing them."

Even if the front seven is in the wrong defense at the wrong time, the result could be OK. But it's dependent upon all players being in the wrong defense together, meaning responsibilities are being taken care of. Whether it's Hightower in the middle calling signals or someone else, having all defenders on the same page on a play-in-play-out basis is critical.  

"A lot of times you can be in the worst call in the worst scenario, but then again if all 11 guys are on the same page and kind of know what that weakness is and expect it, you're able to play a little bit faster," Hightower said. "Without trying to overload, we're trying to be as knowledgeable as we can going into the week."

Hightower acknowledged that he has a lot of work to do to get to where he wants to be, but he felt as though he's improving as he continues to get his legs under him after missing time in 2017. 

"I feel I'm elevating each week," he said. "Obviously it's still early in the season. We all got a lot of work to do, but me personally, I hold myself to a higher standard than that. Had a good week. Didn't play great but just want to continue to get better each week and that's all I can hope for."


Revisiting the 'enlightening' lesson Kobe Bryant taught Bill Belichick, Patriots

Revisiting the 'enlightening' lesson Kobe Bryant taught Bill Belichick, Patriots

In a statement Tuesday, Bill Belichick said he had "never witnessed a group as captivated" as the New England Patriots when Kobe Bryant spoke to the team in May 2018.

Belichick wasn't just paying lip service.

On Tuesday, NFL Films resurfaced a clip from HBO's "The Art of Coaching" documentary about Belichick and Alabama head coach Nick Saban in which both coaching legends reflected on their interactions with Bryant.

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These comments came in March 2019, more than 10 months before Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others were tragically killed Sunday in a helicopter crash.

Here's what Belichick had to say at the time about Bryant's message to the Patriots:

Another thing he said to us, which was an awesome message, was, "When I was 25 (years old), I could go out and score 30 (points). When I was 35, 38, I could score 30, but it wasn't the same way. I had to learn how to play without the ball. I had to learn how to play in less space. I had to learn how to use picks differently. I couldn't just drive to the basket like I could in my younger days. I could still score, but I had to change my game."

That was so enlightening for all our players that heard that. Because you're sitting there looking at his career and then we're all thinking about ours. It's changed for me just like it's changed for the players.

Belichick is a student of football. He has won six Super Bowl titles over 20 years in New England by constantly adapting, changing his approach as a head coach and general manager to stay ahead of the game's shifting trends.

Belichick clearly saw the same trait in Bryant, who averaged 22.3 points per game at age 36 (after tearing his Achilles tendon) by altering his style of play after hours of study and practice. The 42-year-old Tom Brady obviously took Bryant's message to heart, as well.

Bryant is gone much too soon at age 41, but the impact he had on players and coaches of all sports will live on.

How Jimmy Garoppolo won his 49ers teammates over soon after Patriots trade: 'It was sick'

How Jimmy Garoppolo won his 49ers teammates over soon after Patriots trade: 'It was sick'

MIAMI -- George Kittle was dressed as a pirate. It was the day before Halloween of his rookie season. He was going to celebrate the holiday as any 24-year-old would. Then, as any 24-year-old would, he peeked down at his phone to check on a notification.

Jimmy Garoppolo had been traded by the Patriots to Kittle's 49ers. He had a new quarterback.

"I said, 'Wow, that's really interesting.' It was cool," Kittle remembered. "Jimmy G. Two Super Bowls. Hell of a leader. It's fun to have someone like that."

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Kittle and other Niners this week remembered the deal that sent Garoppolo to San Francisco and in the process changed the course of the franchise. They couldn't have known exactly what they had then. Garoppolo had only two NFL starts to his name. But now, sitting in front of microphones in Miami in the days leading up to Super Bowl LIV, they couldn't believe their good fortune that Garoppolo landed in their laps. 

The hints that they had something in Garoppolo came early. 

"Honestly, it sounds cliche but it's real, it was at the first practice," said fullback Kyle Juszczyk. "He ran the scout team the first day. And that first period he absolutely diced our defense. You could see it in his footwork, his mechanics, the confidence that he emitted. You could see that this guy was the real deal."

For Kittle, the sign came loud and clear that his offense had a new leader. It came before Garoppolo even made his first throw from under center. 

"It was funny, his first play under center, he has a really good cadence," Kittle said, referring to the quarterback's calls at the line of scrimmage. "He has a good voice for it. Right after he said, 'Hut! Hut! Hike!' for the first time, everyone was like, 'Whoa! Nice!' It was sick."  

"Very authoritative," offensive tackle Joe Staley said of Garoppolo's line-of-scrimmage vocals. The 13-year veteran smiled and added, "He's commanding. Lets you know he's there."

It came together quickly for Garoppolo in his second professional stop. He started five games after being traded, winning all five, and completing 67.4 percent of his passes at a clip of 8.8 yards per attempt. 

He tore his ACL after three games the following season, but rediscovered his 2017 form this season. The Niners went 13-3 with Garoppolo taking the snaps. He completed 69.1 percent of his throws (fourth in the NFL), threw 27 touchdown passes (sixth), and put up an 8.4 yards per attempt figure (third). 

"I didn't really know much, actually," Staley said of Garoppolo's days in New England. "I remember the one game he had in Arizona where he started and did really, really well. But didn't know much. Didn't have much of a reaction [to the trade] either way. Knew everyone was really high on him. 

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"Then he came in here and he really blew me away. In the huddle. All the little nuances of being a quarterback. The command that he had. His quick release. You could definitely tell that he was trained in that Patriots system as far as getting rid of the ball fast, which is awesome for an offensive lineman. He's continued to grow and develop since he's been here. It's been awesome to see him get to this point."

The Niners are back in the Super Bowl after a 4-12 record last season. Back in the Super Bowl with a chance to win one for the first time since January 1995. And thanks in part to Tom Brady continuing to play at an MVP level the season Garoppolo was dealt, thanks to the Patriots holding onto Garoppolo until midseason that year, all it cost the Niners to change everything was a second-round pick.

"I think," Juszczyk said, "we got him for a bargain."