FOXBORO, Mass. — The best defensive player on the field Sunday at Gillette Stadium made arguably the game’s biggest play.
With the New England Patriots trailing the Cincinnati Bengals by four midway through the third quarter, linebacker Dont’a Hightower came barreling through the Bengals’ offensive line and slammed quarterback Andy Dalton to the turf a yard into his own end zone.
The safety cut New England’s deficit to two and gave both the Patriots and their home crowd, which had grown quiet over the course of an underwhelming first half, a sudden shot of adrenaline.
The Patriots scored on each of their next four possessions (touchdown pass, touchdown pass, field goal, touchdown rush), and their Hightower-led defense held the Bengals to just three points the rest of the way in a 35-17 victory.
“It was a huge play for us,” said Patriots running back James White, who caught two touchdown passes in the win. “It put the momentum back on our side, and I think we kind of rolled away the rest of the game.”
Hightower, who made a similar play in the Patriots’ Week 5 win over the Cleveland Browns, enjoyed easily his best game of the season against the Bengals. He led all defenders with 13 tackles — his season total entering Sunday was 10 — to go along with 1 1/2 sacks, two quarterback hits and one tackle for loss.
“Hightower played a hell of a game (Sunday),” Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett said. “(I’m) super excited for him. He’s a guy who comes to work every week and just works hard and works his (butt) off every single week. He had a great game (Sunday), So I’m super excited for him.”
Bennett added: “If it was a movie, (the safety) would be the climax.”
Hightower’s performance helped stabilize a short-handed Patriots defense that was playing without Pro Bowl outside linebacker Jamie Collins and veteran reserves Shea McClellin and Jonathan Freeny. Fill-in rookie linebacker Elandon Roberts also was sidelined for a spell after suffering a head injury during the second quarter, though he later returned and finished with seven tackles.
“High stepped up a lot,” safety Devin McCourty said of his fellow defensive captain. “… You know, he was on the sideline saying one of us had to make a play. And to go up there and get a safety two weeks in a row to put points on the board defensively is huge.”
Hightower’s own recent injury history made Sunday’s showing all the more impressive. He missed two of New England’s first four games with what reportedly was a partially torn meniscus, had his workload limited against the Browns and was limited in practice as recently as Thursday.
“He’s a real football player,” Patriots defensive end Chris Long said. “That’s the best compliment I can give someone.”