FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots’ two most established defensive leaders both are playing different positions this season — or, at least, mixing up their alignment much more than they have in the past.
Dont’a Hightower, New England’s star linebacker, began this season as an edge rusher following the offseason departures of Chris Long, Jabaal Sheard and Rob Ninkovich. In last Thursday’s win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he played both, spending some of his snaps on the edge and others back in his natural spot at middle linebacker — a trend that likely will continue.
“I think that playing and being able to play in multiple spots, I mean, it helps us,” said Hightower, who missed two games with a knee injury last month. “I like it the most because it makes the quarterback, the coordinator — it makes them think what coverage or what we’re doing. It puts us in different situations where we’re able to force people’s hands sometimes.”
Devin McCourty, who, like Hightower, servers as a Patriots co-captain, leads the team with 42 tackles through five games — a somewhat alarming stat for a free safety. But defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has positioned McCourty closer to the line more often this season, frequently lining him up in the box rather than back deep.
“This year, I’ve been in a couple different roles where it’s not as bad as it sounds,” McCourty said. “(It’s not) like I’m 15 yards deep on every play and end up with 42 tackles. I’ve been down in the box a little bit more and been able to be around the ball, so I’ve enjoyed it. I don’t even think about the tackle totals and all of that.”
McCourty, who earned Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro honors last season, seems to be embracing his revamped role. And having him and Hightower closer to the middle of the defense (“Being on the edge is kind of on an island,” Hightower said) seemed to help the Patriots’ defensive communication against the Bucs.
“You know, free safety, sometimes it gets a little boring back there,” McCourty said. “But being up there and still being able to be free safety, to me, gives me an advantage to use everything I do — watching film, studying and seeing what teams like to do. Usually, when I’m in the middle, I’m trying to alert guys and do it as much as I can that way.
“But being down, I’m actually getting to use some of the things I see and things that show up from watching film that’s not only just reading the quarterback or route recognition, but it’s actually being in the box, knowing motions and then all those different things like that — just trying to play off that. So I’ve enjoyed that.”
The Patriots utilize three safeties — their “big nickel” package — more than almost any other team in the NFL. McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon all have played at least 78 percent of defensive snaps this season, with Harmon often taking on the responsibilities of a traditional deep safety and the other two shifting around to different spots.
After allowing 33 or more points in three of their first four games, the Patriots surrendered just 14 against Tampa Bay.
Thumbnail photo via Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports Images