By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Dont’a Hightower is a monster in the middle of the Patriots defense when he’s on the field. He is an asset in both stopping the run and getting to the quarterback and has the versatility to line up inside or on the edge. He’s also the Patriots’ captain and signal-caller on defense.
You already knew these things. What was largely unknown is which Patriots linebacker would take the reins if they needed a new leader in the middle of the defense – and how they would perform in that scenario. The Patriots’ decision to re-sign Hightower tells you that they didn’t want to know the answer to that.
There are some macro-level stats that show how important Hightower has been to the defense. The NFL Media Research Group tweeted one such stat on Wednesday, determining that the Patriots defense allowed one more yard per play without Hightower on the field in 2016. Between “Fourth-and-2” and Hightower’s shoulder tackle on Marshawn Lynch at the end of Super Bowl XLIX, Bill Belichick will certainly tell you about the value of a yard.
The difference in the Patriots defense without Hightower goes deeper than that. Since the start of the 2014 season, the year Hightower took a leap forward in becoming a leader on the defense, the linebacker has missed 11 full games. In the games he played, Patriots opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of 81.8; in the 11 games Hightower missed, their opposing passer rating was 88.0.
And the 11 games Hightower missed weren’t exactly against a murderer’s row of quarterbacks. They faced the likes of Kyle Orton (twice), Sam Bradford, Brian Hoyer, Brock Osweiler, and Ryan Fitzpatrick. But Andrew Luck and Ryan Tannehill each threw for 300-plus yards and two or more touchdowns in the games where they didn’t have to deal with Hightower (Tannehill did it twice).
There were two other recent games that provided a glimpse of how the Patriots defense could have looked without Hightower, particularly against the run. The linebacker didn’t miss these games entirely, but he did have to leave early.
In Week 5 of the 2015 season, Hightower recorded three total tackles and sacked Cowboys quarterback Brandon Weeden for a nine-yard loss – in the first quarter. About 10 minutes into the game, Hightower sustained a rib injury while making a tackle on Cowboys running back Joseph Randle and never returned. With Hightower on the field, Cowboys running backs averaged 2.8 yards per carry; after Hightower left, they averaged 4.2 yards per carry.
Later in the season, the Patriots had to play the Denver Broncos without both Hightower and Jamie Collins after Hightower exited the game with a knee injury in the second quarter. As Kevin Duffy of MassLive tweeted at the time, the Broncos averaged 2.9 yards per carry before Hightower left; after the injury, they averaged 8.0 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns, including C.J. Anderson’s 48-yard game-winner in overtime.
This all speaks to an obvious truth: the Patriots defense is much better with Hightower on the field. But more importantly, it speaks to the lack of talent that’s been built behind him on the linebacker depth chart, especially now that Collins is gone. The group is much different now than it was in 2014-15, but not much better on paper.
Elandon Roberts, Shea McClellin, Jonathan Freeny, and Kyle Van Noy could continue to be solid rotational linebackers behind Hightower moving forward. But without No. 54, that linebacking group would have been uninspiring, to say the least.
Essentially, the Patriots painted themselves into a corner in terms of their need at Hightower’s middle linebacker spot. Now you can expect Hightower’s eventual replacement to be added to the roster in the next two years, if it isn’t Roberts. The Patriots may have ultimately been able to win without a true replacement for Hightower anyway, but the numbers in recent seasons show that the current defense would have taken a huge hit if it lost its captain.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.