FOXBORO, Mass. — Entering the 2013 season, each Patriots linebacker picked one aspect of his game to work on. After coming off the field for much of the team’s nickel snaps in 2012, second-year linebacker Dont’a Hightower decided to focus on improving his pass-coverage ability.
Through two weeks of the season, it’s showing. Hightower has been targeted three times in coverage, despite playing all but 20 defensive snaps. He has allowed two receptions for just one yard.
The Patriots switched up their coverage scheme from Week 1 to Week 2. Against the Bills, who have more dangerous pass catchers coming out of the backfield, Hightower and Jerod Mayo dropped deep into the defensive backfield, keeping C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson in front of them. It’s a safer way to play a running back prone to making big plays, since the linebackers can run downhill to make a play, rather than letting the pass catcher blow by them. Hightower also spent some time covering tight end Scott Chandler.
The Patriots limited Spiller, Buffalo’s most dangerous weapon, to just five catches for 14 yards. So, even though the plan was safe, it worked.
Against the Jets, Hightower and Mayo stayed closer to the line of scrimmage. Much of the time, one player would stay in zone in the middle of the field, while the other branched out to cover either a running back or tight end one-on-one.
Backs and tight ends were limited to six catches for 35 yards. So, once again, the plan worked, even though the Patriots played a riskier scheme.
Bill Belichick said the approach to covering a running back can change from game to game and running back to running back. That was obvious through the first two games of the season as New England took on two very different offenses.
“It could change a lot depending on who the players are and how the offense uses it,” Belichick said. “Some offenses involve their running backs a lot in the passing game. Some of them use them more in protection and to run the ball and play-action, things like that. Some guys, they’re go-to guys in the passing game on third down or getting them the ball in space.
“It’s definitely a key coaching point, particularly for the linebackers and it could be in sub situations, if you have a DB that’s playing down close to the line of scrimmage but covering those guys, what they do, how they do it and what their skills are. There’s a wide, wide range from real good to almost non-existent, guys that some teams hardly ever throw the ball to those players. So knowing who is in the game and what they’re capable of doing and how we want to do defend them is a key point every week, very important.”
There were times the Patriots struggled last season against tight ends and running backs. It seemed like the team had less faith in its linebackers to cover, so the team would stay in a deeper zone, leaving holes for players coming out of the backfield to find in coverage. That approach will work at times, like it did against Buffalo, but it can also leave players wide open.
Teams were able to pile up yardage against the Patriots with their backs and tight ends, which allowed them to convert on third down.
Hightower was mostly a two-down linebacker in 2012, but the Alabama product has been a strong point in the team’s nickel defense this year. He’s reacting quickly when in zone coverage, blanketing players in man, and he’s done a good job of bumping tight ends at wide receivers at the line of scrimmage to redirect their routes and throw off the timing in the offense.
“I still kind of feel like my size helps me out in the run game,” Hightower said. “But if I’m able to cover Kellen Winslow, one of the better receiving tight ends in the National Football League, that will help value me more and keep me on the field.”
Hightower said his weight hasn’t changed. He’s still hovering around 265 pounds, but he understands his body better. He said his development in coverage comes from a combination of physical improvement, a better understanding of the system and being put in schemes tailored to his size and athleticism.
“I feel like [linebackers coach Pepper Johnson] does a real good job of teaching us different kinds of techniques to use in different situations and different scenarios.” Hightower said. “I feel like he’s helped me a lot more in man-to-man coverage.”
The Patriots are preparing to face another running back who can catch the ball out of the backfield on Sunday. Doug Martin only has two catches for -1 yards in 2013, but in 2012, he caught 49 passes for 472 yards and a touchdown. Martin isn’t exactly like Spiller coming out of the backfield, but he can do some damage. Belichick went through the different kinds of running backs the Patriots can face from week to week.
“I think each week when the linebackers see who the backs are, or the secondary if they’re involved in it, you definitely take more time to go through the scouting report with the backs, how they’re used in the passing game, what kind of skills they have, some examples of them using those skills, whether they’re deep receivers, whether they run a lot of option-type routes, whether they’re guys that can get open, whether they’re more catch-and-run type players, check-down receivers, things like that,” Belichick said. “Usually the player’s skills will be complemented within the offense. If the back is a good route runner, they’ll probably run him on some man-to-man type routes. If the back is more a catch-and-run guy, they’ll run receivers deep and let him be the check-down type guy if it’s zone coverage and things like that instead of asking him to win in a lot of one-on-one situations if that’s not really one of his strengths.”
With such a young defense, the unit seems to have taken a big leap forward this season. Each player is improving, but with 10 starters back, they’re also more comfortable playing with one another.
“Whenever you can play with the guys you played with last year and kind of grow that relationship together — and then you got some of the younger guys like Jamie [Collins] and you got Michael Buchanan and Logan Ryan, some of those guys are coming and can help us,” Hightower said. “It kind of feels like they’ve been here longer than, what? Four or five months. For us to build that relationship and know what each other thinks. That continuity, it helps out a lot.”
The Patriots have faced two quarterbacks who are a threat to scramble on any play in EJ Manuel and Geno Smith. That has forced New England to also use their linebackers as spies on the quarterback. Hightower has spent more time than usual in coverage since the team is playing it safe by limiting their blitzing.
The Patriots have a few more immobile quarterbacks coming up on the docket in Josh Freeman, Matt Ryan, Andy Dalton and Drew Brees. That’s not to say those players are unathletic, they’re just less of a threat to run than Manuel and Smith. That may mean more of a chance for Mayo, Hightower and Brandon Spikes to blitz, an aspect all three players excel in.
More than anything this year, Hightower seems less hesitant to do anything out on defense. As a player learns the system and the playbook better, he’ll have a better feel of where he’s supposed to be at any given moment. At 265 pounds, Hightower is one of the biggest linebackers in the league. But he moves well and is proving that sometimes size doesn’t matter when it comes to coverage. He’s the same weight as many of the tight ends he’ll be covering this season, which helps when he’s bumping them at the line and when they’re trying to box Hightower out of their routes.
Just 25 years ago, at 265 pounds, Hightower may have been playing defensive tackle. In today’s NFL, a player that size is being used in coverage. It’s a changing sport.