By: Steve Balestrieri
This week’s Patriots defensive player to watch in Sunday’s game against the Jets is LB Dont’a Hightower. Hightower will be watched closely as he takes over the calling of the signals for the Patriots defense now that Jerod Mayo has been lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle.
In our weekly “Razor’s Edge” column, we spotlighted WR Kenbrell Thompkins who had the game-winning touchdown against the Saints and from whom much will be expected for the offense going forward.
But in Hightower, the Patriots second year linebacker from Alabama, with all of the injuries on the Patriots defense, he will be expected to not only make all the calls for the unit but to fill in Mayo’s role as the three down linebacker.
Mayo had been playing in close to 100 percent of the Patriots defensive snaps, Hightower the past two weeks saw his playing time actually decrease but not any longer.
The player wearing the helmet with the green dot communication system must be in communication not only with his fellow linebackers, but also with the defensive line and the defensive backs. Hightower practiced that role during the pre-season and while in Nick Saban’s defense at Alabama, he did the signal calling as well, although those were done with hand signals and not via a communication device.
Speaking about his increased role, Hightower seems eager for and ready for the challenge. “Just be prepared for everything, know the game plan of ins and outs,” Hightower said.
Hightower will be setting the defense for the first time in a regular season game.
(USA TODAY Images)
“Know what everybody has to do, what position they need to be in, know when to make checks, what time to make checks. Just being real thorough, basically just being the quarterback of the defense,” he added.
Hightower has mostly played strong-side linebacker (Sam) and at times last week was the only linebacker in the dime packages. Mayo plays the weak-side (or Will) and his role will fall at least initially to rookie Jamie Collins.
Brandon Spikes will remain at MLB and his role as the Patriots run-stuffer will not change. Veteran Dane Fletcher can rotate in to any of those roles or as the inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense as well as the “Jack” on the outside with DE Rob Ninkovich.
The Patriots went to a 3-4 look after Mayo was injured albeit for only seven plays with Chandler Jones, Chris Jones and Joe Vellano as the down DL, Ninkovich and Hightower as OLBs and Spikes and Fletcher inside.
While these personnel groupings will bear watching, one thing to remember is that Patriots defense under Bill Belichick has always been a game plan specific one. So what you see on Sunday against the Jets may not be what you see against a different opponent down the road.
But one thing will be a constant; you’ll be seeing a lot more of Dont’a Hightower on Sunday’s as he’ll become the face of the Patriots defense.
And he’s ready for the challenge, “I feel like everybody that’s here is going to help us win; that’s why they are here. As long as we communicate and execute the game plan, we’ll be fine.”