The New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens have played a lot of important playoff games in the past, but the Patriots have not had two of their most important defensive players in many of those games: linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower.
Hightower was a rookie and part-time player in 2012, when the two teams faced off in the AFC Championship Game. Collins was drafted in the second round in 2013, months after the 2012 AFC title game.
Another season-ending injury to linebacker Jerod Mayo appeared to threaten the Patriots' linebacker depth, but both Hightower and Collins have emerged into stars at their position. Both men received votes for the 2014 All-Pro team and have emerged as leaders of their own team.
This season, Collins led the team with 116 tackles (74 solo) and contributed four sacks and two interceptions. Hightower had 89 tackles (51 solo) and a career-high six sacks. Both Collins and Hightower moved around at times this season, with Mayo's injury causing some flux at the linebacker spot.
"Yeah, I was just telling our guys today, this is a special young player," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said of Collins. "This guy's a budding star. He's a guy that we really liked a lot at Southern Miss. I know Coach Belichick went down there personally to work Jamie out and just did a great job of evaluating him as a player and fitting him into their scheme. A lot of scouts didn't know where to play him, that was kind of the hangup with him, but Bill did, and you could see. I think he's one of the top young players in football."
NFL linebackers are asked to carry out a wide range of responsibilities, making them some of the most versatile players in the league.
Collins and Hightower fit that description and have proven so by moving so freely between linebacker spots. Hightower began the season as more of a pass-rushing defensive end-outside linebacker hybrid in the 3-4, putting his hand in the dirt or rushing from a two-point stance off the edge. He has moved into a second-level role as a strong-side and weak-side linebacker.
Collins has had to step up in place of both Mayo and Hightower, with the latter missing four games this season. As a result, Collins has been wearing the green dot helmet with radio communication to the Patriots sideline, which means he's been calling signals and making checks for the Patriots defense. He has stepped up as both a blitzing linebacker and in coverage responsibilities.
|Player||Jamie Collins||Dont'a Hightower|
|Source: Personal research|
In fact, both Collins and Hightower have been remarkable at getting after the quarterback this season. By my season-long calculations, Hightower and Collins generated pressure on 55 plays out of 247 pass-rush attempts, 22.3 percent of the time they've rushed the passer.
Beyond their pass-rushing ability, their leadership has also grown as they've assumed larger roles in the defense.
"They've really been a center and core part of our defense," said safety Devin McCourty. "There's been times where one has been in there and one has been out, or vice versa, and they've stepped up. No matter what the game was, what the situation, I think all the preparation they've put into each week, being able to control the front and know exactly what we're doing on the back end, I think that's given us a chance each week to go out there and win games. I don't think they plan on stopping now. They're still putting in a lot of work."
Those skills will all be put to the test this week. Under offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, the Ravens offensive system tests the discipline, recognition, speed and toughness of the linebackers with a heavy dose of the running game and play action.
The Ravens were one of just five teams to rush for more than 2,000 yards and more than 4.5 yards per rush attempt as a team.
"That's Coach Kubiak's system," said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. "It's what they ran in Denver, it's what he ran in Houston [and] it's what he runs now. [It's the] same type of philosophy—a lot of stretch plays, they get downhill, they don't lose yards much, so they keep the ball moving forward, stay out of 3rd-and-long, make explosive plays in the running game, set up play-action."
The Ravens do not utilize play action as much as Kubiak has been known to do in years past, but quarterback Joe Flacco has attempted 18.5 percent of his passes off of play action this season, according to stats website Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
That being said, the Patriots rank 30th in coverage of tight ends, according to Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics. That's been a problem for them for years, but this year, it's a bit different. The coverage on the outside has been so much better with Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner at cornerback that opposing teams have been forced to go over the middle.
At times, the coverage roles have fallen on safeties Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon and McCourty, but while Hightower and Collins' coverage stats may not be dominant, they both received positive grades for their coverage from Pro Football Focus.
But as stated earlier, their value is not limited to their performance on the field. The leadership roles that each player has assumed have been invaluable to the defense. With Mayo out for the season, the Patriots have needed a steady presence at linebacker. Collins and Hightower have given them plenty of it.
The Patriots have a lot of players at their disposal that they did not have for those playoff losses, but Collins and Hightower will be at the forefront of the new look for the years-old rivalry.