FOXBORO, Mass. — The Denver Broncos were able to run over, through and past the New England Patriots’ front seven during the regular season. It shouldn’t be that easy in their rematch Sunday in the AFC Championship Game.
The Broncos were averaging just 2.9 yards per carry in that game before Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower went down with a knee injury. The Broncos then rushed for 8.3 yards per carry with four runs over 10 yards and three touchdowns with Hightower out.
Hightower’s sprained knee has since healed up, which should give the Patriots a big boost against C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman in Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak’s offensive system.
“That’s the No. 1 thing I take pride in is being an aggressive, downhill run-stopper,” Hightower said. “That’s what I do, that’s what I take pride in. It means a lot to me, but as far as the stats and stuff, I’m not big on that. As long as we win, we do what we do, we get the W, that’s all that matters to me.”
The Patriots have allowed 331 carries for 1,493 yards with 19 touchdowns in 13 games against Kubiak-coached offenses since 2000, according to 247Sports.com’s Oliver Thomas. The Patriots are 7-6 in those games against the Broncos, Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens.
The Patriots allowed just 3.7 yards per carry with Hightower on the field and 4.5 yards per carry when he was sidelined. It will be key for the Patriots to prevent big plays against Anderson and Hillman on Sunday.
“Dont’a really has a great set of skills,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. “He’s big, he runs well, he’s very smart, instinctive. He’s got a good feel for the ball in the passing game, which doesn’t necessarily happen with all linebackers. He’s played in in sub situations, he’s played sub linebacker, he’s played inside, he’s played outside. In nickel and dime stuff.
“We saw that coming out of Alabama. He handled that defense, which we all know Nick runs a similar type of system with adjustments and checks and things like that. We do our share of that, as well. He handled that well, and he’s played multiple spots.”
Hightower has taken on a bigger role over the last three seasons as the defense’s play-caller with veteran captain Jerod Mayo banged up with multiple injuries. Hightower might have to take on a bigger role off the field with Mayo now out for the season with a shoulder injury.
“There’s more on me, more on everybody,” Hightower said. “What Jerod meant to us, and what he still means to us, I think everybody is ready to step up to the challenge. We’ve been there before. Guys go down, other guys have to step up. They did it when I went down, when Jamie went down, when Devin went down. It’s just part of it.”
Belichick doesn’t want to overload Hightower, however.
“Look, I think everybody has to do what their assignment is,” Belichick said. “You can’t have one guy playing two spots. One guy has to play one, and the other guy has to play the other. We all have to share our load, do a good job with it.”
Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images
Thumbnail photo via Jan 16, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots outside linebacker Dont'a Hightower (54) celebrates after defeating the Kansas City Chiefs 27-20 during the second half in the AFC Divisional round playoff game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
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