With halftime approaching in their Week 12 matchup against the Denver Broncos, the New England Patriots looked to be in great shape. Holding a 14-0 lead despite missing several key starters, their defense had almost completely shut down Denver's offense.
Then linebacker Dont'a Hightower got hurt.
With Hightower out of the game, Denver’s rushing attack finally emerged. Running backs C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman combined for three rushing touchdowns, including Anderson’s 48-yard scamper to the end zone in overtime, to seal the Broncos’ comeback victory.
Though Hightower escaped serious injury with a sprained left MCL, his absence deeply exposed New England's inability to stop the run when he is not on the field.
MassLive’s Kevin Duffy broke down the negative impact that Hightower’s injury had on New England’s ability—or lack thereof—to stop Denver's running game:
In Hightower's absence, Denver's average yards per carry nearly tripled from 2.87 yards to a whopping eight yards, in addition to the three rushing touchdowns.
This defensive lapse was no surprise to anyone who has watched Hightower this season.
Aside from his superior run-stuffing abilities, Hightower has emerged as an elite linebacker. Despite being a Pro Bowl snub this season, he has received high praises for his efforts. In its 2015 Season Superlative Awards, Pro Football Focus voted Hightower the "Best Blitzer" among qualifying linebackers, with a stellar 94.0 pass rush rating.
This past weekend's AFC divisional round showdown with the Kansas City Chiefs was yet another stellar performance by the 25-year-old Alabama graduate. Pro Football Focus noted Hightower's sizable impact on the victory by naming him the third-most effective player on the Patriots for the game.
Unfortunately for the Patriots, Hightower hasn't been the only linebacker to deal with injuries this year. For the third consecutive season, former All-Pro Jerod Mayo was placed on season-ending injured reserve with a shoulder injury. However, Pro Bowler Jamie Collins—who missed the Week 12 debacle and is dealing with a back injury—has participated in practice this week, albeit in a limited capacity. If Collins can play, it would be a welcome addition to New England's defensive front seven.
Heading into this Sunday's AFC Championship Game, the main focus is undoubtedly on a 17th and potentially final Brady-Manning showdown. And yet, this timeless duel will likely end up being one of the least significant game matchups when all is said and done. New England's defense will have to step up and stifle Denver's offense.
Hightower knows the impact that he has on this game, and he knows what his main focus will be.
"That’s the No. 1 thing I take pride in is being an aggressive, downhill run-stopper," Hightower said, per NESN.com's Doug Kyed.
Oliver Thomas of 247Sports.com also noted the success that Gary Kubiak-coached teams have running the ball against New England's defenses:
This averages out to 114.8 yards per game and 1.4 touchdowns per game, despite the fact that Kubiak's teams have only gone 6-7 in these games.
With Peyton Manning and the Denver passing offense still struggling to regain form, the focus is clear for the Patriots defense: Stop the Denver rushing attack, and the entire offense will be severely crippled.
With Mayo now done for the season and Collins back in the fold, Hightower should primarily play inside linebacker to fill Mayo's void. But as Bill Belichick noted, Hightower's versatility provides numerous options for New England's defensive fronts. Belichick said of Hightower, per NESN.com (h/t Patriots.com):
Dont’a really has a great set of skills. He’s big, he runs well, he’s very smart, instinctive. He’s got a good feel for the ball in the passing game, which doesn’t necessarily happen with all linebackers. He’s played in in sub situations, he’s played sub linebacker, he’s played inside, he’s played outside. In nickel and dime stuff.
For Denver, the focus on offense clearly centers around opening up a respectable run game to give Manning the opportunity to make low-risk throws. Stopping Hightower and isolating Collins gives the Broncos their best chance to do so. According to Troy Renck of the Denver Post, however, C.J. Anderson is not happy about what he perceives to be a "lack of respect" surrounding the Broncos:
Whether or not the Patriots will be able to stifle Denver's ground game remains to be seen. But with a healthy Hightower ready to lead the defensive front seven, you have to like the Patriots' chances.