When Mayo was placed on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle after their Week 5 win over the New Orleans Saints, Hightower had to assume a new role in the Patriots defense. He replaced Mayo as the link between coaches and players on the field—a job he has shared at times with safety Steve Gregory—the green dot on his helmet signifying the communication device embedded within.
The transition was anything but seamless.
While communication might not have suffered, Hightower’s play did. It didn't always show up on the stat sheet, but the former first-round pick looked tentative. According to Patriots coaches, he notched only nine total tackles against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Carolina Panthers. He was then relieved of his duties in the second half against the Denver Broncos, replaced by Dane Fletcher.
Perhaps Mayo's absence was having more than just a physical effect. I spoke with Hightower during training camp about what Jerod Mayo meant to him:
Mayo has been in this defense for a while now. He knows every position, not just the linebackers and the defensive line. He knows what the cornerbacks and the safeties have to do. Having him in the linebacker room and as a close friend, it feels good to have that guy in your back pocket.
With Mayo gone, that responsibility fell to Hightower. He was responsible for helping others, as opposed to getting help. He was making the calls, rather than hearing them. You could see him taking that extra split-second to think about what to do, rather than reacting to the play in front of him.
Fortunately for the Patriots defense, it looks like the talented Mike linebacker has overcome that hurdle and is taking some steps forward. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Hightower has played his best football over the last two weeks. He earned a plus-3.3 rating against the Cleveland Browns and a plus-2.2 against the Dolphins.
Here is a play showcasing Hightower's quicker decisions.
The Patriots are lined up in a 4-2-5 nickel formation. Hightower and Brandon Spikes are the linebackers. The Dolphins have four receivers split out wide and running back Lamar Miller in the backfield.
Hightower observed the offensive linemen initially use pass-blocking footwork. He therefore refrained from breaking on the ball and stayed deep enough to affect the throwing lanes if quarterback Ryan Tannehill pulls the ball out and looks to pass.
Once Hightower read the run, however, he didn't hesitate. He exploded out of his stance and took a perfect angle to the ball. In order to set up the cutback lane, Miller is trying to keep Spikes close to the left hash mark and away from the hole.
Unfortunately for Miami, Hightower—due to his quick decision and perfect read—was able to get to Miller before he could cut back. He tackled Miller for a meager one-yard gain, and the Patriots forced a Miami punt after their third-down pass came up short of the sticks.
Without any Mayo, the Patriots defense might seem a little dry. However, if Hightower can build on his strong recent performances, he can certainly enhance the flavor of what defensive coordinator Matt Patricia is serving on game day.