By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — So many plays, mistakes, penalties, bounces and play calls take place over the course of 60 minutes in a football game, that it’s rare for just one of those moments to stand out as the point where the entire game changed.
Yet on Sunday at Gillette Stadium with the Cincinnati Bengals in town, Dont’a Hightower and the Patriots defense provided everybody with about the neatest and tidiest possible example of a game-changing play.
Technically, it was two plays. First, Bengals right tackle Cedrig Ogbuehi committed a holding penalty that negated a 15-yard, chain-moving completion from Andy Dalton to A.J. Green.
That penalty backed the Bengals up to their own 8-yard line. Dalton stood in the shotgun and took the snap, as Malcom Brown occupied left guard Clint Boling and Elandon Roberts stepped up to occupy center Russell Bodine. Dont’a Hightower waited for Bodine to commit to Roberts before turning on the jets and bursting right up the middle.
Hightower grabbed hold of Dalton and dragged him down in the end zone for a safety. To that point, the Patriots had been outscored 14-10. But from that point on, the Patriots outscored Cincinnati 25-3.
“Big momentum swing,” said cornerback Malcolm Butler. “Right before that play, Malcom Brown was saying, ‘We need a safety.’ And we actually got a safety, so it was definitely a good momentum swing. We just built off of it.”
The offense quickly turned that safety into more points, beginning with a 16-yard Julian Edelman return to start the Patriots’ drive at the New England 32-yard line. Tom Brady then hit a wide-open Martellus Bennett for 24 yards, followed by a 38-yard catch-and-run by Rob Gronkowski three plays later. Brady next went right back to Gronkowski for a 4-yard touchdown pass, capping off a drive going 4-for-4 for 69 yards and the score.
And in just 2:11 of game time, the Patriots had turned a 14-10 deficit into a 19-14 lead.
“Hightower had a hell of a game today. I’m super excited for him,” said Bennett. “He’s a guy who comes to work every week and just works hard and works his ass off every single week.”
Head coach Bill Belichick has coached a talented linebacker or two in his many decades in the NFL, and he had plenty of praise to offer Hightower after the win.
“High’s got a lot of skills, a lot of things he can do. He can blitz, he can rush, he can cover, he can play the run, he can run and play in coverage and he’s smart. And he’s smart, too. He’s pretty versatile,” Belichick said. “He can handle a lot of different assignments and not only just knowing what to do but instinctively he handles those well. He’s got good feel, and rush techniques, and leverage and that kind of thing. Same thing – it could be in the passing game. He’s a good player and he had some big plays for us today; no question.”
Hightower also split a sack with Jabaal Sheard on a third-and-long that forced Cincinnati to punt and effectively end the game in the fourth quarter, and he was everywhere on the field, finishing with 13 total tackles. But it was that one in the end zone that really worked to turn a troubling afternoon at home to a blowout victory for the Patriots.