ATLANTA - Two years ago against the Atlanta Falcons, the Pats needed a big defensive play. They were trailing the Falcons in the second half and everyone at the Super Bowl in Houston knew that the Pats could not win without a big defensive play.
That is when Dont'a Hightower blitzed off the edge, rushed past Falcons running back Devonta Freeman and strip sacked Matt Ryan. If Hightower does not return to New England next season because of his high salary that will be his lasting memory in New England. His play in the Pats miraculous comeback has sunk this city into a depression for two years. His teammates have come to rely on Hightower's leadership.
"He always tells you are going to deal with a lot of adversity," CB Jonathan Jones said. "In this game you know the chips will be down, but it is how you respond. He brings a lot to our defense. He is a veteran player that runs around and makes plays. He sets the tempo a lot of time for our defense."
John Simon, who signed with the Pats in Week 3, said what stands out about Hightower is his intelligence.
"His football IQ is better than most linebackers in the league," Simon said. "He knows the game. Pre-snap, he knows what is happening before even it happens. That communications helps the rest of us get lined up. I have been fortunate to be around a lot of smart linebackers and he is definitely in that category. Add in his physicality, that is what makes him so special as a player."
Simon said Hightower prides himself on his versatility.
"He'll cover, he'll rush, he'll stop the run. That is why we appreciate him," Simon said.
Teammates also know that Hightower is a maximum effort player.
"Wherever he lines up, I am confident because I know he is going to give it his all," Lawrence Guy said.
Trey Flowers, who has played with Hightower for four years now, is impressed with the pass rush ability.
"He understands the scheme of the defense well so he is able to make plays," Flowers said.
Rookie CB J.C. Jackson said Hightower has made him feel welcome his rookie year.
"He's one of the leaders on the defense so I have to listen to him. Dont'a is a cool guy. He knows how to make you laugh. He is just cool to be around. He can do it all. He is a hell of a football player," Jackson said. "He also makes it fun and that is what it is all about - making plays/celebrating with your teammates," Jackson said.
Hightower has also helped mentor the young linebackers.
"When I came into the league he was the oldest of the crop and I was the youngest. Anything I needed he helped me out. Even if I was injured he was just a phone call away," Elandon Roberts said. "His intelligence is top-notch. He can see everything and that's what it is amazing about Hightower. He knows everything the offense might do on a particular play That is how smart he is. "
One might never know whether Hightower will make a big play on Sunday in the Super Bowl, but Roberts has confidence in him in the big moment.
"Dont'a is going to do what Dont'a is going to do," Roberts said.