Despite winning the last two games, it seems New Englanders cannot stop talking about the struggles of second-year linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
The popular sentiment seems to be that Hightower is a bust, despite the Alabama product having a strong rookie season and a solid first half to his second year in the league. Hightower has had some troubles since Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly went down with season-ending injuries. Hightower was even benched in the second half against the Broncos for Dane Fletcher.
Rather than sit around and complain about the starting linebacker or make excuses for him, let’s dive into why Hightower may be struggling.
1. Lack of a two-gapping defensive tackle.
Obviously the entire defense misses Wilfork, but the linebackers seem especially lost without the big nose tackle. There’s good reason too.
The middle of the field gets crowded without Wilfork around. Wilfork is a prototypical two-gapping nose tackle. He takes on two blockers, allowing his linebackers to roam free in the backfield. For the majority of the time, Hightower is playing with Chris Jones and Joe Vellano in front of him. Both players are doing an admirable job for rookies who no one else seemed to want, but both players are hovering just around 300 pounds. Neither is strong, big or stout enough to take on double teams or two gaps. They have a hard enough time taking on single blockers and one gap.
Because opposing offenses don’t need to latch an extra man on the interior linemen, they move on to Hightower and Spikes. Hightower has had trouble getting free from blocks, but he’s taking on an offensive lineman on almost every snap. With Wilfork, Mayo was able to roam much more free from that weak side linebacker position.
The Patriots have Isaac Sopoaga, but he’s played sparingly the last two weeks. He played 14 reps against Denver and 21 against Houston. That’s down from 41 against the Panthers and 27 against the Steelers. Perhaps not coincidentally, Hightower played much better in those games.
It seems Brandon Spikes doesn’t get bogged down quite as much by this problem. That’s because Spikes can play without abandon. The Patriots can’t have both their linebackers playing that way, though. Spikes blows up blockers, flies around the field and tends to overpursue at times. That certainly has its effect, but if he and Hightower were both doing that, the Patriots would be giving up more big plays.
Hightower seems to have more trouble in nickel than he does in the base 3-4. It’s fairly obvious which gap he’s supposed to fill in the 3-4, but he has to pick when defending the run with a four-man line in front of him.
2. Hightower is playing out of position.
If the prevailing feeling is that Hightower shouldn’t be playing weak side linebacker, I agree. There aren’t many 270-pound weak side linebackers for a reason.
According to Pro Football Focus, the best weak side linebacker in the NFL this season is LaVonte David, who’s listed at 233 pounds. Hightower had a strong season last year playing strong side linebacker, where he had far less responsibility. He had to cover less and was more focused on filling his gaps, setting the edge and getting after the quarterback.
This is the third position Hightower has played this season. And while he would never let it on to the media, that’s probably too much to put on a second-year player’s plate. He’s also worn the communication helmet at times.
Hightower started out on the strong side, then moved to outside linebacker in a 3-4 then slid over to the weak side. Hightower might have played his best ball this season at outside linebacker. That limits his responsibilities, keeping him setting the edge against the run and either covering one-on-one or rushing the passer on passing downs.
Bill Belichick likes to have his linebackers be able to play all three positions. There’s a reason a lot of teams don’t think of their defense that way. No one wants to bench Rob Ninkovich because he struggles to drop back into coverage while playing outside linebacker. And no one could want to bench Aqib Talib if he struggled when forced to drop back to safety without a player like Devin McCourty protecting him.
The Patriots don’t have much of a choice, so they’re forced to play Hightower on the weak side. That’s two positions removed from where started this season. He’s struggled to make the transition, but it’s a tough transition to make.
3. Hightower is hesitating too much, not relying on instincts enough.
It seems that Hightower’s biggest problem is simply that he’s thinking too much on the field. He has a tendency to pause before hitting his gaps, allowing free blockers time to burst through those rushing lanes to stop the big linebacker.
One of Hightower’s best traits at Alabama was his instincts. Now, perhaps he’s feeling too much responsibility with Mayo gone, or his increased role has him feeling too much pressure. Either way, there appears to be too much hesitation out of Hightower.
As I said before, unlike Spikes, Hightower can’t just fly around the field. The Patriots need a linebacker to stay back and clean up, so to say. But Hightower is standing back too much and not trusting his instincts quite enough.
Hightower’s at his best when he’s not forced to make a decision at the line. For the second season in a row, he’s been one of the best pass-rushing linebackers in the NFL. I have Hightower down for 15 pressures on the season in 60 pass-rushing snaps. That’s one sack, 11 hurries and three quarterback hits. Pro Football Focus has him down for 14 total pressures, which ranks him fifth in pass-rush productivity among linebackers. I have him hurrying the quarterback 25 percent of the time he’s rushing.
What can be done to help?
Hightower has had a tough two-game stretch, but there are ways fix his issues. An increase in reps for Sopoaga would help clear up the middle of the field. Sopoaga isn’t Wilfork, but he’s at least a nose tackle, unlike Jones and Vellano. Sopoaga will play more once New England gets past teams more prone to pass.
The Patriots can also limit Hightower’s snaps. He was better last season when he wasn’t an every-down player. New England can mix in Fletcher and Jamie Collins.
It may also help to transition back to a 4-3. This seems to make sense in a lot of ways. If the Patriots were to pick their best 11 defensive players, it would probably be: Chandler Jones, Ninkovich, one of Chris Jones or Vellano, Sopoaga, Hightower, Spikes, Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, Steve Gregory and McCourty. That’s a nickel package. The best 11 in a base would replace Arrington with either Fletcher or Collins.
In New England’s current 3-4 base, the Patriots have Chris Jones, Vellano and Sopoaga playing at the same time with Chandler Jones and Ninkovich at outside linebacker. Going back to a 4-3 base would replace either Vellano or Jones with Fletcher or Collins. From a talent standpoint, that seems to be an upgrade. It’s not quite as big of an alignment, but the extra weight doesn’t seem to be helping anyway against the run.
If Fletcher was inserted into the base defense, he could play on the weak side, allowing Hightower to go back to the strong side.
No one was going to step into Mayo’s shoes without New England noticing a dropoff. And trying to play without Wilfork would be difficult for any player to get used to. Hightower has struggled, but there are players in the Patriots’ defense who have been far more detrimental to the team’s efforts in stopping the run who no one wants to talk about because expectations were not high coming into the season since no one expected them to be getting starting reps.
I’m certainly not saying to transfer the blame to those players, but there’s a reason a player like Hightower can be a pleasant surprise in his rookie season and a scapegoat in the next. He also may not be the every-down player New England may have thought it was drafting. Hightower was much better last season when he wasn’t playing every down.