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The Middle Linebacker Isn’t Dead Yet

New England’s Dont’a Hightower looks like he’s straight out of the ’90s, but he’s a modern superstar

AP/Ringer illustration
AP/Ringer illustration

With positional prototypes all evolving toward smaller and quicker players, New England’s Dont’a Hightower is among the last and best of a dying breed: the hulking, 265-plus-pound, three-down middle linebacker.

As Tom Brady said this week, “Every good defense has a good middle linebacker,” and Hightower is the quarterback of New England’s defense. Like previous Patriots field generals Tedy Bruschi and Jerod Mayo, he’s the emotional tone-setter. He gets his teammates lined up in the correct spots. He plays with great anticipation and instincts. He defends the run, can cover sideline-to-sideline, can rush the passer — oh, and he can blitz, too.

Despite bearing the physical resemblance to the old-school, run-stuffing middle linebackers of the ’80s and ’90s, Hightower hasn’t only thrived in the modern NFL. He’s become a superstar.

You won’t see a middle linebacker have a bigger impact on a game than Hightower did against the Bengals on Sunday. With fellow linebacker Jamie Collins out, the 2012 first-round pick racked up 13 tackles and 1.5 sacks, and for the second week in a row, he forced a safety on a delayed blitz up the middle. The win over Cincinnati produced a highlight reel of what Hightower does in defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s scheme: a little bit of everything.

Of all his responsibilities, Hightower’s first task is to be a force in the run game. In the first quarter against the Bengals, Hightower lined up on the right edge, and when Andy Dalton handed off to Giovani Bernard on a run to the other side of the field, Hightower chased the play down and combined with Rob Ninkovich to make the tackle for a 2-yard loss.

Later in the quarter, Hightower patiently filled the gap that had opened up in the middle of the field and strafed to his left, forcing Jeremy Hill to bounce the ball back into a mass of bodies and get stuffed for a short gain.

On the first play in the fourth quarter, Hightower took on Bengals center T.J. Johnson, shed the block as he tossed Johnson aside, and helped limit Hill for a 1-yard gain.

On a play later in the fourth quarter, Hightower recognized the run almost instantly and rushed forward to avoid oncoming blocks and slice through the offensive line. He combined with defensive tackle Alan Branch to stop Bernard in his tracks.

Of course, in today’s pass-happy, increasingly spread-out NFL, any linebacker has to be able to cover, and even at his size, Hightower has the athleticism to defend against the pass in the middle of the field and the flats. This expanded reliance on players with the range to cover speedy slot receivers and running backs has led to the marginalization of the Bruschiesque, traditional middle linebacker: If Hightower couldn’t cover, the Patriots wouldn’t keep him on the field in passing situations, but his versatility allows him to contribute in any situation. In the first quarter, and later in the third, he chased down a couple of outlet passes to Bengals running backs, limiting both receptions to 3 yards each.

Hightower also has a talent for affecting the passer that you don’t often see from the big linebackers in the middle: He registered 3.5 sacks and 24 quarterback pressures in 2015 and had five pressures to go with his 1.5 sacks on Sunday against Cincinnati. Due to, as Bill Belichick noted on Sunday, his “good feel, and rush techniques, and leverage,” the Patriots can and do use Hightower as an edge rusher at times. But where he’s most dangerous is as an additional interior rusher.

With the Bengals leading 14–10 midway through the third quarter, Patricia sent his middle linebacker up the gut on a delayed blitz, and Hightower corralled Dalton and pulled him down for a safety. That play swung the game in New England’s favor: Its offense scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive, a possession that gave the Patriots the lead and moved their win probability from 54 percent to over 80 percent.

On the next defensive series, Patricia kept his foot on the pedal and brought the pressure to Dalton. He used a different trick to get Hightower involved in the rush, utilizing what’s called “sugaring the A gaps,” or lining up Hightower (and sometimes another linebacker or defensive back) directly over the offensive line gaps on either side of the center prior to the snap. Doing this confuses the offensive line because whether or not Hightower actually rushes the passer, they have to account for him in their protection assignments. He can drop into coverage, and that often leaves a guard or center blocking nobody and opens up space for another defender rushing the passer elsewhere along the line.

When Hightower does rush from the A gap, though, he brings enough power and burst to overpower offensive linemen. On two straight snaps, key second- and third-down plays later in the third quarter with the Patriots holding on to a 19–14 lead, Hightower was the key to forcing a Bengals three-and-out. On the first play, Hightower and Malcom Brown ran a stunt (flipped positions) and Hightower pushed the guard back into Dalton, forcing an early and off-target throw to the sideline. The next play, Hightower took on the center with an unconventional basketball-style blockout move, and got Dalton off his spot in the pocket. Dalton scrambled right and threw low and incomplete, and the Bengals were forced to punt.

He didn’t stop there. With 4:23 left in the fourth quarter, and the Bengals down 28–17, Hightower’s sack from a similar stunt after sugaring the A gap effectively sealed the deal for the Patriots.

The downside of Hightower’s punishing, ever-present style of play is that he’s an injury risk week-to-week, and he’s struggled to stay on the field throughout his career. He missed four games each in 2014 and 2015 and he’s already missed two games this season with a torn meniscus. After sitting out Weeks 2 and 3, he tried to come back early to play the Bills in Week 4 — New England’s only loss this year — and looked a step slow against the Browns in Week 5 — despite forcing a safety in the game — before blowing up against the Bengals on Sunday.

Through six games, the Patriots own the 25th-ranked pass defense in the NFL, per Football Outsiders DVOA, and have the seventh-ranked rush defense. With a healthy Hightower, those numbers should only improve, as his versatility creates a trickle-down effect for the rest of the Patriots defense by providing depth at two or three positions.

He might look like he belongs in 1996, but it’s 2016, and Hightower is the most valuable defensive player for one of the best teams in the NFL.