FOXBORO, Mass. — Here’s a tip for Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill: Keep track of Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins.
The New England Patriots starting linebackers disrupt even the most well-laid plans of opposing offenses no matter where they’re lined up and what role they’re playing. Hightower, at 6-foot-3, 270 pounds, is the most dominant run-stuffing linebacker in the NFL. Dolphins coach Dan Campbell said Tuesday the fourth-year pro hits like a defensive lineman. He looks like one too, but he also has the speed and agility to cover running backs and tight ends, and he fires off the line of scrimmage like a cannon as a pass rusher, typically rushing through the middle.
“I think he’s explosive, he makes plays, I think he sets a good edge, I think he’s good in coverage, and he’s another guy that presents issues for us up front because he can do a little bit of everything,” Campbell said. “That’s what I would say about these guys, being on the opposite side of the ball and watching some of these guys that have been there that were young guys that are developing, it’s pretty impressive. I’m sure if you’re a Patriots fan you’re loving it because between Collins, Hightower and a number of these guys, every year they get better and better and they’re pretty damn good football players.”
Hightower has 15 total pressures on the season with 2 1/2 sacks, two quarterback hits and 12 hurries, all as a part-time pass rusher. He’s also allowed just seven catches on 14 targets for 71 yards in coverage.
Collins is only slightly smaller than Hightower at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, but what he lacks in his ability to disengage from blocks in run defense, he more than makes up for in coverage. He’s allowed 12 catches on 20 targets for 119 yards with two pass breakups. He’s also an elite pass rusher, recording 11 total pressures with 4 1/2 sacks, one quarterback hit, five hurries and three forced fumbles with a nose for the football and big plays.
Hightower, 25, and Collins, 26, are aided by having talented pass rushers around them on the front seven, including defensive ends Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard, and defensive tackles Dominique Easley and Akiem Hicks.
“It’s real nice,” Collins said. “I mean, when you got other guys out there causing havoc, obviously it’s going to bring some leeway to your game and everyone else’s game, so it’s pretty good.”
Hightower and Collins also are helped by having more opportunities this season. The Patriots can drop Ninkovich into coverage, allowing their linebackers more pass rushing reps.
“Little bit of everything: me being able to do it more, get more reps at it, me being comfortable with it,” Hightower said about his success. “Just all around, man, just having Chandler and having Rob help me out, watching those guys in pass rush, Jabaal, (linebackers coach) Pat Graham, (defensive line coach Brendan Daly) just doing a good job of giving us clips and tips. It’s just all the way around.”
Jones apparently has been working with all of the Patriots’ front-seven defenders. Easley also credited Jones with helping his pass-rush skills.
“Chandler, he’s a beast, man,” Collins said. “You guys see it. I learned from a lot of people, whether it’s a corner, quarterback, receiver. I learn. I’m watching. I just sit back and watch.”
Patriots fans should love sitting back and watching the versatility and disruption Collins and Hightower offer their defense as the best linebacker duo in the NFL.
Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images
Thumbnail photo via Oct 26, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Brandon Browner (39) celebrates with outside linebacker Jamie Collins (91) and outside linebacker Dont'a Hightower (54) after breaking up a pass against the Chicago Bears during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports