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How Dont’a Hightower played Super Bowl hero for the Patriots — again

Hightower keeps stepping up when it matters most. Retired NFL defensive end Stephen White breaks down just how much of a difference the linebacker made in this Super Bowl against the Rams.

When I wrote up my preview for Super Bowl 53, I felt like I was pretty thorough in my evaluations. I even pointed out some under-the-radar players who I thought had a good chance to make an impact for both teams. One guy who I definitely overlooked, however, was Patriots linebacker/edge rusher/jack-of-all-trades Dont’a Hightower.

I know Hightower hasn’t put up gaudy stats during the regular season for most of his career, but he does seem to have a particular knack for making big plays when he is healthy and his team makes it to the Super Bowl. You can go all the way back to the 2014 season. You have probably forgotten, but it was Hightower who made the tackle on Marshawn Lynch to keep him from pay dirt when he looked to have a lane to get in the end zone on the play before the interception at the end of the game.

You might also remember his big sack and caused fumble two years back that helped spark the Patriots’ epic comeback Super Bowl win over the Falcons. Mind you, Hightower only had 2.5 sacks in 13 regular-season games that year.

Likewise, although he had just a single sack this regular season, he once again turned the heat up with the Lombardi Trophy on the line on Sunday. Even if I had mentioned him in my column, I don’t think there is any way I could’ve predicted the kind of monster game he had against the Rams.

Teamwork made the dream work on Hightower’s first sack

Stats aside, after watching the film it it is apparent that Hightower’s impact on the outcome of the game was even larger than I thought watching in real time. He was doing it all, whether playing the run, rushing the passer, or dropping back in coverage.

One of the best things about some of the plays he made is he was able to make them because of his ability to work well in tandem with his teammates. Those guys were running the hell out of some pass rush games to get after Jared Goff, and in the end it paid off for the team and for Hightower in particular. Pointing out that kind of teamwork is the fun part of my job, and I say we dive right in so I can explain to you what I mean.

Let’s start with Hightower’s first sack of the game.

The Rams’ defense had just come up with a big stop on fourth-and-1 to give the ball back to their offense with a little over a minute left in the first half. On the very first play of the drive from their own 32-yard line, the Rams came out in a shotgun set with trips to their left and Todd Gurley in the backfield to the right of Goff. The Patriots countered with five rushers up on the line of scrimmage: a zero nose, two three-techniques, and two wide fives.

Hightower was a standup three-technique on the right side with Adrian Clayborn lined up outside of him as the edge rusher, Adam Butler as the zero nose, Kyle Van Noy as the standup three-tech on the left, and Trey Flowers as the left edge rusher. On the snap of the football, the Patriots did a full-line pass rush game with a five man-pressure.

And man, it was glorious.

To break it all down:

  • On the left, Flowers got upfield and enticed Rams right tackle Rob Havenstein to widen out to him.
  • Inside of Flowers, Van Noy initially ran right at right guard Austin Blythe. Then, right before he made contact, Van Noy ripped back outside in the B gap which was now wide open because of Havenstein’s stepping out to Flowers.
  • Butler went right at center John Sullivan’s left shoulder, then shoved Sullivan in the chest and transitioned into a rip move into the left A gap, which was now also wide open because of Blythe trying to block Van Noy’s outside rip move.
  • Once both Van Noy and Butler were upfield, Flowers looped inside behind them to exchange pass rush lanes. Flowers had a chance to get the sack himself as a free runner because there was no one left to block him, but Hightower just got to Goff first.

Hightower stopped the Rams from getting any momentum before halftime

On the right side of the line, Hightower and Clayborn were running a fire TEX game. The three-technique penetrates up the field in the B gap, trying to get to the tackle’s back, and eventually becomes the contain rusher, while the edge rusher gets upfield to help open that B gap up by getting the tackle to block out to them, then the edge rusher loops inside to the same-side A gap after they feel the three-tech get to the tackle.

With Sullivan locked on to Butler to the left, that meant if Hightower and Clayborn ran the game well, they would be setting up a two-on-one situation with left guard Rodger Saffold, where either choice he made would be wrong. Unfortunately for the Rams, that pair did in fact run the hell out of that game.

Clayborn had good width in his alignment outside and took two big steps on the snap to get Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth to step out to him. In the meantime, Hightower took two quick steps right at Saffold, then chopped at Saffold’s outside hand while redirecting his path back outside and right at Whitworth’s inside half.

Whitworth tried to turn his hips toward Hightower to absorb the blow once Clayborn looped inside, but Hightower already had a full head of steam. Hightower just kind of gave Whitworth an old school “flipper” to the chest, then ricocheted off Whitworth and turned back inside to turn his full attention to Goff.

As expected, when Saffold saw Clayborn looping inside, Saffold came off of Hightower and tried to pick up Clayborn instead. That left Whitworth pretty well screwed with only one thing left to do.

Whitworth literally had two fistfuls of Hightower’s jersey from behind and tried to pull him down before Hightower could get to his quarterback, but it was to no avail. Hightower was able to keep himself upright by putting his left hand on the ground, and he powered through Whitworth’s tackle attempt to take Goff down for a 6-yard loss. Which was good because somehow not a single ref saw Whitworth’s blatant hold, evidently. Flowers, who did eventually come scot-free, helped to finish Goff off after Hightower already had him wrapped up.

That wasn’t at all the way I imagine the Rams thought the first play of that drive would go. How demoralizing must it have been to get sacked right on the first play after their defense had just gotten the ball back for them with more than enough time to at least get in field goal range right before halftime.

That was one hell of a pass rush plan the Patriots brought into the game, and Hightower did a great job executing that TEX game with Clayborn perfectly.

The Rams are still probably mad about one of Hightower’s hits on Goff

Later in the game, Hightower got to Goff again thanks to another pass rush game.

With a little over 10 minutes left in the third quarter and the Patriots clinging to a 3-0 lead, the Rams’ defense stepped up again and forced a punt. That punt ended up pinning the offense back at their own 2-yard line, and two plays later, the Rams found themselves facing a third-and-6 from their own 6-yard line.

Even though they were backed up, the Rams decided to go with a shotgun empty set with Gurley split out wide to their right. In fairness, they did keep their tight end, Gerald Everett, in to block. However, an empty set, backed up near your own goal line, with the protection problems LA was having all game was a curious choice to say the least.

On this particular play, the versatile Hightower was lined up as the left edge rusher. The Patriots were showing a look with five pass rushers on the line of scrimmage again with Flowers and Butler in the left and right A gaps, respectively, Van Noy at the right three-tech spot, and Clayborn as the right edge rusher. This time Van Noy would drop out instead of rushing, but the threat of him coming is what likely forced the Rams to keep Everett in to block in the first place.

Flowers and Butler ran a TOM game inside where Butler, as the right A gap rusher, tried to penetrate and get to Sullivan’s back. At the same time, Flowers took a step upfield then looped behind Butler to try to force Saffold, who was initially locked on to Butler, to make a decision again about whether to stay on Butler or try to come off and block Flowers. The pass rush game wasn’t quite as successful this time because the Rams’ interior offensive linemen held up a bit better, but it did provide just enough pocket penetration to assist to Hightower’s rush.

On the snap, Hightower came off the ball hard for a couple of steps, did a little cha cha cha with his feet, then went right at Havenstein’s chest with a vicious long-arm move. Unfortunately for Havenstein, he didn’t appear to be expecting power.

At all.

In fact, Hightower caught Havenstein right in the middle of still trying to kick step with his feet. Hightower punched Havenstein dead in the middle of his chest with Hightower’s inside (right) hand, and bench pressed his ass back about five yards, right into Goff’s lap. In the process of using that hellacious long arm on Havenstein, Hightower was able to use his outside (left) hand to grab Havenstein’s outside (right) wrist and forklift Havenstein’s outside arm up, both to keep Havenstein from grabbing him, and also to turn Havenstein’s body to create a shorter corner.

With the TOM game inside, Butler was able to get just enough push in the pocket when he ripped to the right on Sullivan after Saffold came off on the looping Flowers. Then Goff got spooked and tried to drift outside to his right to get away from the perceived pressure. He ended up going from the proverbial frying pan right into the fryer, because at that very moment when Goff was trying to escape outside, Hightower had gotten himself in position to come off Havenstein’s block to the outside and lay him out.

Goff was barely able to throw the ball away before Hightower put his facemask into Goff’s chest, but he definitely paid for it. Hightower exploded out of his hips and drove Goff into the ground with the kind of force that for much of this year would have drawn a penalty for roughing the passer. Hell, I have seen a lot less called as such, and I would venture to guess Goff and the Rams were not happy that it wasn’t called that time. I can assure you Goff felt that impact long after that play was over.

Hell, he is probably still feeling it today.

And Hightower wasn’t done making Goff feel his wrath.

Hightower rescued the Patriots’ D from what could’ve been a costly error

Hightower’s second sack of the game came with just under three minutes left in the third quarter, and it was probably his biggest play of the game.

Still down 3-0 to the Patriots, the Rams had finally put together a drive that had them in good scoring position, having matriculated the ball all the way down from their own 23 to the Patriots’ 26-yard line. But now they were facing a third-and-7. While the Rams were already in field goal range, with how the game had been going I have to believe they were desperate for a touchdown to take the lead right there rather than settling for a tie.

The thing to know about this play that you probably don’t know if you haven’t watched the All- 22 is that the Rams did have a great opportunity to score, or at least to get the ball down near the goal line.

No, seriously.

The Patriots made a huge mistake on defense for once, but Hightower’s quick pressure ended up saving their asses.

The Rams came out in shotgun with a trips bunch to their left and Brandin Cooks out wide to the right. C.J. Anderson was lined up in the backfield to Goff’s right. The Patriots, in turn, were giving a five-pass rusher look on the line of scrimmage again, but to the trips side they had four defensive backs in kind of a diamond formation, a deep safety in the middle, and a cornerback in press coverage on Cooks.

Now, it doesn’t take a math major to figure out that if you have four people covering three on one side, and a corner and safety basically covering Cooks on any deep routes on the other side, that’s six defenders for four eligible receivers. Unless one of those five potential pass rushers peels off to cover Anderson out of the backfield, ain’t nobody else left to cover him.

None of those five potential pass rushers peeled off to cover him.

Notice how open he is on the right there. If it weren’t for Hightower...

The Pats had the same basic setup pre-snap as they had on Hightower’s first sack, except this time, Hightower was the left three-tech and Van Noy was the right three-tech. For this five-man pressure, the Patriots were going with a three-man pass rush game inside. Hightower and Butler penetrated inside to their right, while Van Noy took a short step upfield, then looped behind them to his left. The idea was to get Van Noy free in the left B gap after Hightower and Butler created chaos with their penetration.

Hightower’s second sack might have been the turning point of the game

I have to say this because it still befuddles me, but for some odd reason all game long the Rams’ offensive line tried to block the Patriots horizontally instead of getting depth and letting the pass rush games play out in front of them. It was the damnedest thing, like they hadn’t watched a lick of film or something and weren’t expecting those pass rush games in the first place.

It was a big reason why they gave up so much pressure most of the game, and it really hurt them at this critical juncture on Sunday.

Hightower was lined up on Blythe’s outside edge and on the snap Hightower straight-up abused him. Hightower took one hard step upfield to get Blythe to expand out wide to get him, then immediately stepped down hard inside while cross chopping Blythe’s inside (left) hand with his outside (right) hand. Hightower was able to keep Blythe’s hands off of him and that allowed him to slip inside of Blythe easily and get to Sullivan’s back.

Once he got to the center, Hightower gave him a nice shove to pick him and make sure he couldn’t recover to try to block the looping Van Noy. At the same time, Hightower turned his hips away from Blythe to “get skinny” in the gap, and he ducked right under Blythe’s second punch attempt to come through the left A gap damn near untouched. With Blythe on his back, Hightower was able to get square and hit the turbo button to get to Goff in a flash.

Hightower got there so quickly that Goff never saw Anderson wide-ass open and waving his hands in the right flat with nobody within 20 yards of him.

By the way, Van Noy did end up coming pretty much scot-free on that rush. But, as with Flowers earlier in the game, Hightower just got there first.

That sack, which resulted in a 9-yard loss, just about took the Rams out of field goal range, which was what I was focused on in real time. The Rams’ kicker, Greg Zuerlein, was ultimately able to knock the field goal in on the next play from 53 yards out to tie the game, but it turns out he might have been kicking an extra point on the next play if it hadn’t been for Hightower’s heroics.

In retrospect, with all things considered, I think Hightower actually had a strong case for Super Bowl MVP. He ended up with two sacks, two pressures, and a pass breakup that he almost hauled in for an interception. When the Rams had their best opportunity to score a touchdown, it was Hightower who stepped up and made a play to turn them away.

And it turns out if he didn’t get that immediate pressure the Rams indeed had a good chance to score a touchdown there and completely change the complexion of the game.

I can’t really hate on Julian Edelman’s production against the Rams, especially after he worked over damn near LA’s whole secondary at one point or another on Sunday. What I can do, however, is recognize Dont’a Hightower’s stellar play myself with an award of my own and name him my Hoss Of The Week for Super Bowl 53. It is certainly well deserved.


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