Wilfork doesn’t see that happening with linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, though. The 33-year-old instead can’t help but marvel at their growth throughout their short stints in the NFL.
“I’ve seen them grow over the past year like younger brothers or my kids grow up,” Wilfork said Wednesday at Gillette Stadium. “From last year to now, it’s so amazing to see that. A lot of credit goes to those guys — taking the coaching, taking it upon themselves to be a better football player, a smarter football player, understanding the game the way it needs to be played, things that we change on a daily basis or a weekly basis and being able to do a lot of things.”
Hightower, a first-round pick (25th overall) in 2012, is in the midst of his third season. Collins, a second-round pick (52nd overall) in 2013, is in Year 2. Both players still are developing within New England’s system, but both have been among the Patriots’ most productive defensive players this season.
It’s a development that’s been vital after New England lost linebacker and defensive captain Jerod Mayo to a season-ending knee injury back in Week 6.
“As a linebacker, you’re sort of the quarterback of your defense. We have two guys — with Jerod Mayo being out — that have rose to the occasion this year, and they’ve done a great job for us, a phenomenal job for us,” Wilfork said of his defensive brethren. “Like I said, a lot of credit goes to those guys individually. But at the same time, the coaching that they’ve received, it says a lot about where their minds (are) at, how focused they are. They know they have to run the defense. They didn’t back down from a challenge. They stood firm. They’re still standing firm.”
Hightower and Collins are two vastly different players. Hightower (6-foot-3, 270 pounds) is bigger than Collins (6-foot-3, 250 pounds) and features a skill set more in line with a defensive end, while Collins’ game is built around his incredible athleticism. But both have found ways to make an impact this season. Their versatility will be critical in this Sunday’s AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts.
“We can kind of line them up where we want to line them up. They give our opponents problems to see them in different spots. That’s the advantage that we have,” Wilfork said. “The teams we play know (No.) 75 is going to have his hand in the dirt. But for Dont’a and Jamie, their hands could be in the dirt, in the turf, standing up, lined up wide.
“(Our opponents) have to identify what they are, who they are, what they’re going to do. That forces a lot of communication for an offense, for our opponents, and that’s a good situation for us to be in as a defense.”
The Patriots have been seen as legitimate Super Bowl contenders all season in large because their defense is better than it’s been in years. Collins and Hightower are two major reasons for the overall upgrade.
It’s a reality that isn’t lost on an 11-year veteran who’s been around for the unit’s ups and downs.
Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images
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