There probably isn’t a place for Dont’a Hightower on an NFL awards list. There probably isn’t a position for him behind the tackles of Lavonte David, the sacks of Justin Houston, or the coverage of DeAndre Levy in the Pro Bowl.
But the 6-foot-4, 270-pound linebacker is in a place where he has a position; one where he’s filling the run lanes, rushing the passer, and closing the coverage from one down to the next. And while that may not set him atop one particular achievement category, it sets him in the midst of the 9-2 New England Patriots’ defense.
It is there that he’s become his own.
Hightower has become an inside linebacker and an outside linebacker. He’s become a communicator, a chaser, a hitter, a gap-blitzer and an edge-setter in a multiple defense. He’s become what head coach Bill Belichick saw in him at No. 25 overall in the 2012 draft.
It just took three years for the rest of the league to see it.
The 24-year-old Alabama product has put it all together in 2014. Despite missing the two games with a knee injury, he’s played a fifth-ranked 633 of the team’s 776 defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
He’s done so on the way to collecting 62 tackles, 3.5 sacks and two pass deflections.
But Hightower’s value to New England’s front seven – and oftentimes six – is best illustrated on the field. It is illustrated in the role he’s stepped into without captain and green dot Jerod Mayo next to him. And in turn, it is illustrated in the difference he’s made on the offenses across from him.
The Detroit Lions’ offense felt that difference in Week 12.
Center Dominic Raiola and halfback Joique Bell felt it six plays in, on the second run stop Hightower was a part of.
It was 2nd-and-7 at the 12:39 mark in the opening quarter. The Lions turned to a “13” personnel grouping, sending two tight ends flush with the offensive tackles and a third offline as the left wing. It was all part of the retaining wall built for Bell, who was ready to take the handoff from quarterback Matthew Stafford while wideout Jeremy Ross swept across the backfield.
The left A-gap was the destination for the 5-foot-11, 229-pound runner, yet New England’s nine-man box was looking to keep it there.
Devin McCourty stood off as the single-high safety. But six Patriots huddled at the line of scrimmage, with cornerback Brandon Browner and Patrick Chung down at the cornerback and safety spots, in addition to Jamie Collins and Jonathan Casillas down at the outside linebacker spots.
Hightower stood five yards off at the middle linebacker spot.
Stafford handled the snap from Raiola and the blocking assignments got on their way. Raiola’s led him to the second level, where Hightower resided.
That was a residence Hightower was not long for, as he got underneath the 35-year-old’s pads while defensive tackles Alan Branch and Vince Wilfork collapsed the inside.
That forced Bell to look in another direction for yards, and Hightower spinned out of engagement and followed him to the outskirts.
The outskirts were where Chung got to him first. But Hightower got to him second, driving the halfback to the turf.
The gain was one. It was also one of three assists Hightower recorded during the Nov. 23 contest. His patience, discipline, strength and athleticism at the point of attack were the reason why.
Hightower has shown the willingness to take on blocks and track ball-carriers to the D-gaps. But those attributes are shown in the statistics as much as they are in the way he gets there.
The way Hightower generated pressure on the quarterback versus the Lions fell under the same umbrella.
The third-year pro had a hand in three pressures and hit on Stafford last Sunday. He managed to do so standing up off the edge as well as in the A- and B-gaps. And he managed to do the latter as early as the 9:27 mark in the first quarter.
The situation was 3rd-and-7 for the Lions. It was a situation the offense fought to counter with twin receivers stacked in the seam and two out in the numbers.
From that blueprint, Stafford stood in shotgun with Bell to his left. Once the QB saw a fourth man signaling to his teammates and looming over three-man line, though, he checked with his offensive line.
Hightower’s plan remained unchanged. He was awaiting the opportunity to encounter Lions rookie right guard Travis Swanson on a blitz.
That was an opportunity he took with leverage as Stafford took the snap and dropped back to pass. It was then that Hightower shouldered into the former Arkansas center and bull-rushed him into the head of the pocket.
His power, along with right end Akeem Ayers’ outside-in move on fellow rookie tackle Cornelius Lucas, left Stafford with no ground to step forward to.
There was no time to throw.
A loss of 11 on an Ayers sack was the byproduct as the punt team stepped on.
The heat up the middle from No. 54 was a fundamental factor in it. It was one of 21 times he was called upon to rush the passer against Detroit.
Yet while Hightower has developed into an integral part of passing downs this year, it’s not only due to his purpose as a pass-rusher. It’s due to the fact that where he was once hesitant, in the depth of his drops and angles to the football, he’s found comfort.
Hightower pedaled into coverage 31 times in New England’s 34-9 victory over Detroit. He was responsible for overpursuing what was an 18-yard screen to receiving back Theo Riddick in the flat, as well as an incompletion to starting back Bell on an outlet.
But perhaps his strongest play in coverage came on a play he wasn’t responsible for; a play where he was zoning the middle of the field on an underneath crosser.
It was 1st-and-20 with less than 14 minutes to play in the fourth. The Lions found themselves down 18, searching for yards and points from “11” personnel with trips right. Within that assembly, first-round tight end Eric Ebron awaited a dig route split from the right tackle, and receiver Golden Tate awaited a drag route right next to him.
New England responded with a three-safety dime defense with deep-third zone coverage and Collins sugaring the blitz. But the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagle’s façade would inevitably become inside protection versus Ebron. And Hightower’s roaming in the pipe would inevitably become protection beyond him.
The Patriots were prepared for the deep ball. Yet as Stafford inherited the snap, it grew apparent that it the off-coverage look would leave the Patriots unprepared for Tate’s underneath pattern.
Hightower and Collins swiveled back and performed their respective tasks, helping make Ebron an unfavorable recipient in the intermediate. Tate, on the other hand, had been made a favorable recipient over the middle.
A missed tackle by Chung accentuated it.
But Hightower zeroed in, 10 yards away from the 1,000-yard receiver’s catch point. He gained on him. And after Tate had gained 14, he tackled him six yards shy of the first.
It was Hightower’s eighth tackle of the game. It wasn’t a highlight. It was, however, a play that kept a lapse from conceding one.
Those are the kind he knows how to make.
Hightower may never be decorated. He may never be the prototype for any one position. He may never be a full-time rusher or a full-time cover man. But in Foxborough, he has become an every-down player. And along the way, he’s become one of the best players.