How Dont'a Hightower Keyed Patriots Defensive Turnaround

New England Patriots LB Dont'a Hightower
New England Patriots LB Dont'a Hightower
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 9 - All throughout the offseason, the consensus belief on the New England Patriots was that their defense would return to glory and help prop up an offense littered with uncertainty. Between their approaches to free agency and the draft, as well as getting Dont'a Hightower back after he opted out last season, it was easy to understand why everyone bought into that idea.

It took a little bit of time to get there, but Bill Belichick's defense is coming together the way we all thought it would. Over the past month, the Patriots' defense has clawed its way from 11th in DVOA (good, but not enough) all the way to fifth, producing increasingly better DVOA performances week after week over that span.

Like anything, there is no one answer for the Patriots' return to defensive glory. Part of the equation is the new star power up front. Outside linebacker Matt Judon has been everything the team hoped for and more when they signed him during the free-agency period, while rookie defensive tackle Christian Barmore seems to get better every week and is on a warpath to making the All-Rookie squad. The Patriots did not have a playmaker of their caliber at either spot last season.

New England is also getting quality play from non-star players in the secondary, as they often do. Safety Adrian Phillips has continued to play well near the line of scrimmage and underneath area. Myles Bryant, a 2020 undrafted free agent, has stepped up as a sound defender and feisty tackler. With those guys holding it down as "glue" pieces while cornerback J.C. Jackson follows opponents' No.1 receivers, the secondary has really come together even with Stephon Gilmore now out of the picture.

My favorite part of any Belichick defense, however, is the linebacker play. Getting Hightower back in the lineup and back into shape as a couple of role players have stepped up has done wonders for the middle of this Patriots defense. Hightower had to knock off some rust during the early portion of the year, but with two months of play now under his belt, he has returned almost entirely to form.

The hallmark of Hightower's game is how he sees and takes on blocks. Hightower is quick to read out plays, as are all the other top linebackers, but nobody hits offensive linemen like Hightower. All 260 pounds of his frame are behind every single hit he delivers up front.

Hightower (54) effectively plays two gaps on this play. At the snap of the ball, defensive end Lawrence Guy (93) slides into the play-side B-gap (between the guard and tackle) and defensive tackle Carl Davis (98) falls back into the back-side A-gap (between the guard and center). Both the play-side A-gap and C-gap (outside the tackle) are open, the latter in part because Carolina brings a lead blocker around. Hightower flies out of his stance and pops the left guard back a step, which helps take away the A-gap before easily removing himself from the off-balance guard to work into the free C-gap.

On this rep, Hightower's effort is not as integral to the result of the play because everyone else also does their jobs, but you can see how powerful he is when taking on blocks and how much horizontal space he helps cover. Hightower again comes screaming forward right at the snap, allowing him to meet the left tackle at the line of scrimmage and knock him back a yard. The high-powered Hightower collision even helps bump Barmore (90) back into the running back and take away every inch of space. Hightower plays every rep that he can with this intensity.

And of course, Hightower is still putting in work on the edge. Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, and Jamie Collins (more on him later) have all been workable pieces on the edge for the Patriots, and it has gone a long way in keeping their defensive personnel and structure varied.

The Panthers bring a second tight end (Tommy Tremble, 82) across the formation to get a double team with some momentum on Hightower, but it does not matter. Part of that is because of how well Hightower engages with the first tight end (Ian Thomas, 80). By knocking him right off the snap, Hightower weakens the double-team effect the Panthers are aiming for because Thomas is trying to recover from the initial hit. Despite the double team, Hightower holds his ground, regains his balance after the second blocker hits him, and works horizontally while keeping his outside arm free to force the runner back inside. That kind of strength and command from both an off-ball spot and edge alignment is hard to come by.

Hightower is not the only linebacker in New England's front who brings the hammer, either. All of them do to different extents, but Hightower's primary off-ball companion, Ja'Whaun Bentley, plays like a psycho when he triggers towards the line of scrimmage and takes on blocks. Though not as heavy as Hightower, Bentley brings the same fiery energy. Offensive linemen never get an easy second-level block against this pair.

This play is nothing special, but it highlights the value in the Patriots' linebackers fitting with the speed and physicality that they do. Carolina is running duo and wants to get double teams on both the A-gap player (between the center, Sam Tecklenburg, 68, and the right guard, Trent Scott, 78) and the C-gap player (outside the tackle, Taylor Moton, 72). The whole point of duo is to hold those double teams for as long as possible and generate upfield movement, but Bentley's run fit makes that tough.

Bentley (8, the deepest defender in this clip at the snap) gets downhill in a hurry and forces the right tackle to come off the double team a tick earlier than he would probably like to. That alone is helpful, but Bentley then stands up the right tackle at the point of contact, giving the Patriots a nearly impermeable wall of defense right across the line of scrimmage. Credit to the runner for stumbling into a positive gain, but Bentley's effort took away the chance for this play to be anything more than a couple of tough-fought yards. Bentley has always kind of been capable of this, but he is doing it on a more regular basis with fewer of his chaotic plays as of late.

Along with Bentley's improved consistency, the Patriots are again getting quality play out of Collins. All of the "Collins can only perform on the Patriots" jokes are just reality at this point. So far, Collins is only earning about 15 to 20 reps per game, but he has played well on those snaps, particularly as an edge defender.

Collins (58, on the right edge) sort of gets a two-for-one with gap control on this rep, similar to Hightower in the first clip. Collins flies off the ball at the snap and crushes the tight end, giving him control of the block. From there, Collins is able to work the tight end far enough into the backfield that the edge is cut off for the running back, unless he wants to make the widest bounce to the outside of his life. While doing all of that, Collins keeps his eyes up and muscles his way back inside the moment he sees the running back is corralled and has to cut the play back up the field. Barmore (90) makes a great play of his own on the left guard and completely squeezes any potential daylight out of this run with Collins on the other side.

On top of all that muscle in the run game, the Patriots are getting decent coverage play out of their linebackers. To be clear, none of New England's linebackers have the athleticism to run with guys vertically (without jamming them) or handle quick running backs one-on-one. That is the sacrifice the Patriots make for having linebackers who can fit the run as well as they do. We even saw that with Hightower against Christian McCaffrey a couple of times in this game, including once on a deep route that was not completed thanks to Barmore knocking the pass down at the line of scrimmage. What the Patriots' linebackers can do is reroute receivers and play things out from there.

Both Hightower (54, the right inside linebacker) and Bentley (8, to Hightower's left) play this out well to different degrees. At the snap, both linebackers trigger towards the play fake, but they recognize the play is a pass before it's too late. Hightower makes a seamless transition to turn and knock wide receiver Robby Anderson (11) off his route before running across the field with him, while Bentley gets enough of tight end Ian Thomas (80) to slow him down and prevent him from sprinting past Matt Judon (9) to the flat. Pair all of that disruption in route-timing with defensive lineman Lawrence Guy (93) playing the boot effectively and you get an incomplete pass.

This time around, it is Collins getting another two-for-one. Collins (58) is playing out of the slot to the top of the screen with inside leverage on slot receiver Willie Snead (83). Collins gets a mean jam on Snead at the snap, forcing the receiver to stumble after the contact and never really open himself up to the quarterback as early as that route should be able to. After that, Collins does a good job expanding with the crossing route coming into him while gaining some depth to stay on top of it, again forcing Sam Darnold to look elsewhere and ultimately scramble.

If the Patriots are going to live in this world where their linebackers can not just run with players and play one-on-one as well as some other linebackers can, they have to be able to re-route and play with good eyes so that the rest of the coverage can fall into place. At least over the past month or so, they have been doing just that.

The Patriots will not get to completely tear apart offenses such as the Panthers every week, but keep in mind that they held the Chargers in check just a week before. That game required better pressure schemes, more thoughtful play in the back end, and a lot more press coverage in order to contain Justin Herbert—and they still handled business. Belichick knows how to put players in positions to win and the talent is there to keep this thing rolling.

If anything, the defensive line would benefit from some added consistency, but that alone should not be enough to knock the Patriots off their current trajectory. New England's defense is good enough to push them to the playoffs if the offense can give them anything more than what they currently are.


3 comments, Last at 15 Nov 2021, 4:12pm

1 Great Job

Great analysis.  I have a question, though.

”The whole point of duo is to hold those double teams for as long as possible and generate upfield movement, but Bentley's run fit makes that tough.”

is this really the case?  I have read—and listened to several announcers say—that the point of duo is to get an initial big push to allow one of the blockers to then move onto the second level, not hold it.

2 Great Article

Its nice to see a true football writer diving into the film, and not just the stat sheet. Hightower has to be one of the most physically imposing linebackers that I can recall. 

3 Unstoppable force meets immovable object

Neat to have features on Cleveland's O-line and NE's linebackers right before they faced off.  Unstoppable force started well, but I'd say that was a win for the immovable object.