Wednesday, January 8, 2014

New England Patriots on Paper: Direction of Linbacker corps is clear

It's Dont'a Hightower's time.

All season, the physical freak of nature has been taking his lumps just as anyone who is learning on the fly would - and now that the middle of the defense has been deprived of downhill run-stuffer Brandon Spikes for -well - at least the rest of the season and maybe forever, it's time for the sophomore linebacker to make this defense his.

And he can do just that by being what he is.

Humbly, the second year linebacker out of Alabama admitted to trying to do too much to compensate for the loss of weak side linebacker Jerod Mayo when the defensive captain went down for the season with a torn pectoral muscle in mid-October, putting himself in an awkward position - but he needn't beat himself up over it, because he's been in an awkward spot since arriving in Foxboro.

His struggles are well documented - the low point of his season a benching in the Patriots' miraculous come-from-behind win over the Broncos - so there's really no reason to revisit them, rather, if the defense is going to fulfill it's obligation to help this team win a title, it's time to stop pointing the finger at Hightower and utilize his talents in an appropriate manner.

Hightower is a middle linebacker.  He is a highly intelligent consummate professional who should be leading this defense - and while he already wears the green dot and calls the plays on defense, the one thing that needed to happen for him to take the next step in the progression was to fill the role he is destined to play.

The Patriots' placed Spikes on the injured reserved list this week, ending his season of pain - and while it is being speculated that 4th year linebacker Dane Fletcher is the favorite to fill Spikes' electric shoes, the job should go to the man who was tabbed by just about every draftnik in existence as a natural in the box...

...the man that Sports Illustrated tabbed as a "dominant run-defending linebacker who could play in the middle of a conventional defense or a 3-4 alignment." and the same man that the draft experts at boasted "has looked the part of a starting middle linebacker in the NFL - Hightower can do many of the same things that Oakland's Rolando McClain or New England's Brandon Spikes did working as the physical inside presence of a defense."

And now, Spikes is gone.  It's Hightower's time.

Spikes was the emotional leader of the defense - the vocal, trash-talking, purely energizing spazoid with a style that can only be properly referred to as that of Adam Sandler's on-the-field character in the film The Waterboy - a two down force that came out on obvious passing downs.  Hightower can be better.

The middle linebacker position is commonly referred to as the Quarterback of the defense, and not only is the Alabama product intelligent enough with the natural leadership qualities for the position, but the "incredible athleticism for a man his size" that we always hear when someone is speaking of Hightower becomes explosive and violent within a defined box.

He can't cover receivers one-on-one, is completely out of place chasing them down sideline-to-sideline and struggles setting the edge from ballcarriers. He doesn't possess a quick backpedal but he can sure as hell patrol the middle of the field in a zone and knock the chocolate out of receivers trying to cross underneath the coverage.

Fletcher is decent in coverage and rookie Jamie Collins is flashing more and more ability as an edge defender every week.  Hightower needs to be in the middle.  The position begs for his combination of skill, awareness, read-and-react discipline and overall aptitude.

Spikes is gone, most likely never to return - and despite his infectious energy and knack for blowing up plays in the backfield, the Patriots aren't going to pay him what he's going to be able to get as a two-down linebacker elsewhere.  Hightower is an upgrade, and if the Patriots use him for what he is, they could have their middle linebacker of the future right now, in the present.

"I just need to do my job," Hightower said on Tuesday. "I don't need to make a tremendous catch, I just need to do my job - make sure everybody's lined up, make sure everybody's got the right communication. After that, playmakers will make plays."

Sounds like he's ready.  Time to give him the job.

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