ATLANTA — We might have to start calling Dont’a Hightower “Mr. February.”
Hightower, the New England Patriots’ veteran linebacker and team co-captain, has made massive, game-altering plays in each of the three Super Bowls he’s appeared in, including Sunday night’s 13-3 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII.
First, there was his tackle on Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch inside the 5-yard line that set up Malcolm Butler’s iconic interception in Super Bowl XLIX.
Hightower made his mark again two years later, coming up with the strip-sack of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan that ignited New England’s record-setting 25-point comeback in Super Bowl LI.
Hightower missed last year’s Super Bowl — which the Patriots lost to the Philadelphia Eagles — with a torn pectoral muscle, but he was more active than ever Sunday in his return to the game’s grandest stage.
The 28-year-old finished with two sacks, three quarterback hits, two tackles for loss and one pass breakup against LA, spearheading along with fellow linebacker Kyle Van Noy and cornerback Stephon Gilmore perhaps the most dominant defensive performance in Super Bowl history.
The Patriots are a perfect 3-0 in Super Bowls that Hightower has played in.
“(We were) just coming out and playing Patriot football,” he said after Sunday’s victory. “We did what we needed to do and (played) how we needed to play. We have done a good job in these last couple of months and over the last month or so playing the way we wanted to play. We had to come out and be physical and play on our side of the ball.”
Hightower and Van Noy consistently pressured Rams quarterback Jared Goff, accounting for three of the Patriots’ four sacks and six of their 12 quarterback hits.
“I love that man,” Van Noy said. “… He’s a dog, and I try to be a dog. We’re elite football players. We believe it. We have teammates that are elite and we all on point. We communicated well, and we executed the game plan at an amazing level. Look at the scoreboard. It feels amazing.”
New England’s pass rush — which utilized a heavy dose of stunts and twists dialed up by de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores, who will be announced as the Miami Dolphins’ new head coach on Monday — was instrumental in stopping LA on 10 of its 13 third-down opportunities, including each of its first eight.
The Rams, who boasted the NFL’s second-ranked offense during the regular season, tied an undesirable Super Bowl record for fewest points scored and did not run a single play in the Patriots’ red zone.
Hightower, Van Noy and Gilmore, the latter of whom finished with three pass breakups, a forced fumble and a pivotal fourth-quarter interception, all made strong bids for the Super Bowl MVP award, which ultimately went to wide receiver Julian Edelman.