Week 4 Photos: Patriots at Chiefs
When New England plays the Kansas City Chiefs on “Monday Night Football,” Patriots linebackerDont’a Hightower will be wearing No. 54. Viewers need to know that if they want to keep up with the former Alabama standout, because he’s liable to line up anywhere in New England’s front seven on defense.
The Patriots and Chiefs wrap up Week 4 of the NFL season at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Arrowhead Stadium. ESPN will televise the game nationally.
“He’s played off the line, inside on the guard, on the tackle and played on the line on the tight ends, played down,” New England coach Bill Belichick said during his Wednesday press conference about Hightower’s roles with the Patriots defense. “Did that in college, did some sub rushing in college, played Sam. Then when (Rolando) McClain left, he moved inside and played Mike. So he’s a pretty versatile player.
“We saw him as a versatile player, and we’ve used him that. So I would say it’s not really a big surprise. I think the big thing for a player like Dont’a is his ability to play on third down – his ability to cover and rush the passer, which gives your defense a lot of flexibility. He’s a guy that you really want on the field on third down for the number of different things he can do. I wouldn’t say that’s always the case with linebackers like him – inside linebackers. But that’s what makes him a really good player. He’s good on all downs, but he gives you a lot of versatility and can also play on fourth down for us as well. We haven’t used him as much in that role because of his expanded role defensively, but he was a good fourth-down player for us his first year and even last year at times (on) punt team.”
The Patriots started the season with a 33-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins. The leading tackler for New England with 137 last season, Hightower had only one tackle in that game. New England rebounded to beat the Minnesota Vikings 30-7 and the Oakland Raiders 16-9, with Hightower totaling 15 tackles, two sacks, another tackle for loss, three quarterback hurries and a pass defensed.
New England defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said Hightower’s versatility makes it easier on all the Patriots’ defenders.
“It opens your playbook to anything,” Wilfork said. “It makes it so hard for an opponent to try and key and say, ‘Well, that guy, he’s not rushing’ or ‘He’s going to always be dropping’ or ‘He’s going to always be three-technique.’ It makes it hard for guys to identify what that guy is doing.”
While the opposition’s offense is trying to identify what “that guy” is doing, Hightower said his teammates are making plays.
“Whenever I’m doing that, the offense doesn’t know if I’m dropping or covering or rushing or what’s going on, and that opens up space for everybody else,” Hightower said after practice last week. “While they’re trying to zero in on what I’m doing, somebody else on the other side is getting a sack or a pick. They don’t really know what the coverage is or what’s going on. I feel like that helps me and has elevated my game a lot.”
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Last season, Hightower had to elevate his game in a hurry. Wilfork went down with a season-ending injury in the fourth game. Inside linebacker and defensive signal-caller Jerod Mayo followed in Game 6, shifting his responsibilities to Hightower with the two veteran defenders out.
“It forced me to step up a lot,” Hightower said. “I was put in a situation that I wasn’t used to. … I just feel like it helped me a lot. It helped me grow up a lot faster to realize more about being a leader.”
Now, Hightower is being put into all kinds of situations by the New England coaches.
“There’s more on my plate,” Hightower said. “Rushing the passer, dropping in coverage, playing man — I like being one of those guys.”
New England defensive end/linebacker Rob Ninkovich said Hightower, in his third season, is on his way up in the NFL.
“For him, there’s no top on his growth,” Ninkovich told reporters. “I think he can continue to just get better and better. For a guy who’s 270, he can cover, rush and stop the run. You don’t meet those guys every day.”