Dont'a Hightower, Darren McFaddenFOXBORO, Mass. — Dont’a Hightower received some well-earned praise from New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick on Wednesday.

Belichick explained how Hightower isn’t a traditional inside linebacker because of his versatility on passing downs, which is rare for a 6-foot-3, 270-pound defender.

“I think the big thing for a player like Dont’a is his ability to play on third down, and his ability to cover and rush the passer,” Belichick said at Gillette Stadium during a news conference. “He 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 that he can do.

“I wouldn’t say that’s always the case with linebackers like him — inside linebackers. That’s what makes him a really good player. He’s good on all downs, but he gives you a lot of versatility.”

Hightower has been extremely effective against the pass this season, which wasn’t always the case for the Alabama product. He’s allowed nine completions on 12 targets for 35 yards in coverage, and he’s leading the team with 14 pass-rush pressures, with two sacks, five QB hits and seven hurries. Raiders rookie quarterback Derek Carr completed four passes on Hightower, but the linebacker didn’t allow a single yard because of his strong tackling and instincts.

Hightower has clearly been one of, if not the, best defenders on the Patriots this season, and he’s served a number of different roles. He’s played inside and outside linebacker in a 3-4, and in a 4-3, he’s played strongside and weakside linebacker, as well as defensive end. Hightower was forced to use the defense’s communication device last season after Jerod Mayo was placed on injured reserve, and he played middle linebacker when Brandon Spikes was injured.

“Dont’a’s a very versatile player,” Belichick said. “He’s played multiple positions for us. He’s done that well. He’s played off the line, inside on the guard, on the tackle — and played on the line on the tight end. He’s played down — did that in college, did some sub rushing in college, played SAM, and then when (Rolando) McClain left, he went inside and played MIKE. He’s a very versatile player.”

Hightower received plenty of criticism last season when he was tasked with too much responsibility, effecting his game. He’s flourishing now that he’s able to play to his strengths, and his head coach has noticed.