Patriots: Hightower proving himself a force
While fellow draft mate Chandler Jones has gotten most of the attention so far this year, Dont’a Hightower has become a force for Patriots, and their most consistent defender.
Riding a nine-game streak of +1.0 or better overall grades (including a pair of outstanding performances in the playoffs last season), Hightower has played well even when the rest of the defense hasn’t. And as the only defender in the league currently carrying a green grade in run defense, pass rush, and pass coverage, Hightower has excelled in whatever role or position the Patriots have asked him to fill.
Hightower started the season playing at outside linebacker, and was the only member of the front seven to salvage a positive run defense grade in an otherwise disastrous performance against Miami. More importantly, it was the first time Hightower has been given a chance to rush the passer (83 rushes last year) and he took advantage, leading all 3-4 outside linebackers in Pass Rushing Productivity after Week 1 at 20.8.
An injury to Jamie Collins caused Hightower to move back inside for the last two weeks – where he promptly worked up to become PFF’s top-rated inside linebacker for the year at +7.7. Nearly matching his PRP from the edge at 20.3, Hightower has blitzed 26.9% of the time – so far staving off the law of diminishing return. Teams have tried to counter Hightower by targeting him in the passing game once every 5.2 cover snaps, fifth-highest for an ILB – but to no avail as his 0.62 yards given up per cover snap is among the lowest at his position.
With the offense struggling, Hightower and his +8.7 grade are a big reason the Patriots are sitting at 2-1.