Tom Brady was named the MVP in the Patriots’ last two Super Bowl victories. Both matchups were late-game thrillers, and Brady rallied his team in what will go down as two of the most exciting Super Bowls of all time. However, it’s one of Brady’s teammates, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who was New England’s unsung hero in both victories.
His biggest moment in Super Bowl LI ended up sparking New England’s offensive barrage that turned a 25-point deficit into an overtime win. The Patriots were down 28-12 in the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons when Hightower strip-sacked Matt Ryan with under nine minutes left. New England recovered the ball at the Falcons’ 25-yard line, and five plays later it was a one-score game.
After that game-changing turnover, the momentum shifted to the Patriots. They scored 16 more points in regulation, went into overtime, and won the game with a James White 2-yard touchdown run.
After the game, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said, “I thought Hightower’s sack was a huge play for us. We really needed that.”
Brady warrants praise for his poise and for bringing New England back from a large deficit. The win over the Falcons was the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history, and the four-time Super Bowl MVP engineered some great drives. But Hightower deserves credit for making a critical play, just as he did two years before.
In New England’s defeat of the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX, you normally think about Malcolm Butler’s game-clinching interception on the 1-yard line, right?
Indeed, the play Butler made was monumental, but the play before was nearly as big. With the Patriots leading 28-24 and over a minute remaining in the game, running back Marshawn Lynch gained 4 yards, but Hightower tackled him at the 1-yard line.
Well, tackling Lynch — one of the most physical runners of all time — is no easy task, especially by yourself. If Hightower hadn’t made that tackle, Lynch probably would have plowed into the end zone and Seattle would have more than likely won the game. Without that tackle, the interception doesn’t happen.
Hightower is no stranger to making plays when his team needs it the most. The 265-pound run stuffer, who was selected to his first Pro Bowl this year, is the captain of the Patriots’ defense.
He is also scheduled to become a free agent this offseason. The Patriots could use the franchise tag on him, but he deserves a long-term contract because of his consistency, big-play ability, and upside. Let’s not forget that he is only 26 and hasn't entered his prime yet.
Hightower finished the regular season with 65 tackles and 2.5 sacks. But he has been making game-changing plays like a Pro Bowler before becoming one.
He did a great job of stuffing the run in that game. For example, Hightower shed Bengals center T.J. Johnson’s block, tossed him to the side, and was part of a gang tackle that brought running back Jeremy Hill down for a 1-yard gain.
This is a pass-happy league, too, and Hightower can make plays while defending the pass. With a 14-10 lead midway through the third quarter, Cincinnati was on its own 8-yard line. Hightower ran up the middle on a delayed blitz and sacked quarterback Andy Dalton in the end zone for a safety.
After the safety, New England’s offense scored and took a 19-14 lead. Hightower finished the game with 13 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and a safety. That was an impressive outing, but it was just one example of Hightower’s impact. He performs like that game in and game out.
Hightower also leads by example. He is not Ray Lewis-esque. He isn't boisterous at all, and he’s the kind of guy who would decline going to the White House because he’s “been there, done that.” Hightower lets his play do the talking, and his fellow teammates know it.
Before the Super Bowl, Patriots linebacker Elandon Roberts told WEEI, “Dont'a is going to be Dont'a. He knows how to lead and he definitely knows how to play all the time. You don't have to be vocal to be a leader on the field. Dont'a knows when to be vocal."
Brandon King, who is a special teamer for New England, said the 26-year-old is “quiet for the most part, but when he talks it's always important.
“That's the way it should be. You shouldn't be a person that is just yelling to get attention. There should be some meaning behind it."
Good middle linebackers are hard to find in the NFL, especially one who has had a massive hand in two Super Bowl victories. Hightower doesn't put up stats like Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, but he’s dependable and makes plays when it counts. The Patriots should do everything they can to make sure their defensive captain stays in New England for many more years.