Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Old-School Hightower Taking The Art Of Blitzing To Higher Levels

There is no better player on the blitz than Dont'a Hightower.

No, really.  It doesn't show up in the way of sacks, though he logged one-and-a-half of those on Sunday afternoon against the Cincinnati Bengals, but sacks are only a part of the total picture when it comes to blitzing the quarterback.

For instance, Hightower blitzed ten times on Sunday and registered five bonafide quarterback pressures to go along with his sacks, not to mention that one of those sacks translated to two points when he trapped Bengals' quarterback Andy Dalton in his own end zone.

"He kinda delayed and came on a blitz and made a good play" Dalton said of Hightower after the game, "I tried to get out of it, but I couldn't"

What Dalton is referring to is called a "Hug Blitz", where a defensive player - usually the weakside linebacker or strong safety - keys on the running back in a passing situation, picking him up in coverage if he curls out into the pattern, but if the back doesn't separate and stays into block, the linebacker will wait for the back to commit to one side of the line or another, then sprint through the gap voided by the back.

Now-retired Patriots' linebacker Jerod Mayo made a living on the hug blitz, but Hightower is taking the art to a higher level.

"The best thing about a good hug blitz is if the linebacker can anticipate it." head ball coach Bill Belichick offered on Monday from his office at Gillette Stadium, "It's hard for the offensive line on those kinds of plays because sometimes they lose the coverage guy (linebacker), especially if he doesn't come right away. Sometimes they lose him in all the traffic."

The delay that Belichick is speaking of is purposeful.  The linebacker can anticipate that the back isn't going to go out in the pattern, but that doesn't mean there's an immediate gap to charge through - the pass rushers along the defensive line know what's happening and facilitate the process by taking on double teams, which often provides a gap for a blitzer to go through, but it takes a measure of patience to wait for exactly the right time that the gap opens to get successful pressure on the quarterback.

And it's not as if Hightower just suddenly started being an excellent pass rusher, as it was his calling card as a triple threat in college at Alabama. "Inside linebacker, nickel backer, defensive end and odd rusher," Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban cited Hightower's strengths in his 3-4 defense, while many scouting reports went on to list his pro fit for any position on the second level in a standard 3-4 or a "Mike" linebacker in a 4-3.

It's no secret that the Patriots have had a difficult time keeping their linebackers healthy, and have been wanting for quality depth in the worst way for a decade or more, but when things have gone south so far as injuries to the corps, Belichick simply goes to his 4-2-5 Big Nickle alignment that features just Hightower and the freakish Jamie Collins as the sole 'backers, with a strong safety reducing down into the box as an impromptu weaksider.

That's right, just two linebackers - that's the level of trust both have earned in Belichick's eyes, and both have responded with a grip of the positions that have earned them the praise and admiration of scouts and other people in-the-know.

For instance, just before the start of training camp, when the respected website Pro Football Focus named Collins the best linebacker in the American Football Conference, second in the league, while Hightower ranked 10th - but when drilling down the stat sheet and focusing on pressuring the quarterback on the blitz, Hightower has no peer, according to the respected website Pro Football Focus.

In their end of the 2015 season superlatives article, they named Hightower as the best blitzing linebacker in the game, and have followed that up by lauding him as the best overall linebacker in the league for the past two weeks, his 50% rate of pressuring the quarterback in that time span, an insane level of success.

"There is no better player on the blitz than Patriots' linebacker Dont'a Hightower" the piece states, continuing, "He has an ability to hide his approach behind linemen before exploding into the gap and bursting through it before the blockers can react and slow his approach."

Of course, not every game is going to present the possibility for such a high quantity of blitzes, particularly against a strong running team like the Patriots will be facing in Pittsburgh this Sunday, but there are circumstances that can change that in a hurry, such as the Patriots' offense jumping out to a quick two-score lead, bringing the passing game more into play as the game progresses...

...and given that the back that will most often be in the Steelers' backfield is going to be Le'veon Bell, the scene is set for a head-to-head matchup between players at the top of their game, mano-a-mano.

"Oh my God" Belichick blurted out when Bell's name was brought up by a reporter on Thursday. "A tremendous player...Bell's as good as any we'll play."

Heavy stuff, coming from the terminally dour Belichick, but there are two things that need to be added to the context: first, Belichick has always been a player's coach - he respects the men that play the game both for and against him.  Secondly, Bell has been a wrecking ball since returning from suspension three weeks ago, going for a whopping 5.5 yards per carry and catching 20 balls for 177 yards.

Bell is a multiple tool threat, and you can bet your last nickle that Belichick's defensive game plan will be concentrated on stopping Bell, DeAngelo Williams and the Pittsburgh running attack and forcing the game onto the shoulders of backup quarterback Landry Jones, but even still, the tendency of backups throwing to their backs and tight ends is in play, so it's going to take a concerted effort to keep Bell reasonably contained...

...particularly if Collins, who is nursing a bum hip, is unable to go because injury to Jonathan Freeny and Shea McClellin has left New England desperately short of linebackers, leaving only rookie Elandon Roberts and defensive end Hybrid Rob Ninkovich, who has had a very quiet start to his suspension-delayed season, and is due for a breakout game.

Roberts is purely an interior guy who plays downhill violently while Ninkovich is one of the best pure edge-setters in the game from the strong side - that leaves Hightower as the weakside backer with the primary responsibility for Bell along the line of scrimmage - as one would expect that, given the depth issues on the second level, the Big Nickle would come more into play where a safety like Pat Chung could take up some coverages, leaving the linebackers to deal with tight ends and the running game.

Regardless of how it plays out, whether Hightower continues to build to what he and all Patriots fans is a crescendo at just the proper time, which is, of course, the Super Bowl.  He's never been selected to the Pro Bowl, never been selected for either 2nd or 1st team All Pro - but has just been named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his dominance over the Bengals, and that's a start.

Because the guy has been recognized by scouts and others in the know as a throwback to a time that the large, determined, blood-and-guts, run-stuffing linebackers prowled the second level, and is on the cusp of super stardom, ready to level that barrier like he does running backs in the gap and quarterbacks in the pocket.

"He can blitz, he can rush, he can cover, he can play the run," Belichick said, almost gushing after the Cincinnati win about his defensive captain. "And he's smart, too. He;s pretty versatile. 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, good techniques and leverage."

Defensive end Chris Long, himself no stranger to putting pressure on quarterbacks, summed up Hightower best, however, saying "He's a real football player, and that's the best compliment that I can give someone"

Actually, it's the best compliment anyone can give him - because he's a hell of a football player.

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