Dont’a Hightower was hurt in the first clash, and the Broncos’ running game took off. But he’s back.
foxborough, mass.» You can pinpoint the moment this season’s first meeting between the Patriots and Broncos pivoted.
It was a tight end screen to Denver’s Owen Daniels toward the end of the second quarter. The play gained 8 innocuous yards. It also knocked Dont’a Hightower out of action.
Before the linebacker suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament while tackling Daniels, the Denver running game had done next to nothing, picking up 46 yards on 16 carries (an average of 2.9 per carry). On the first snap with Hightower on the sideline, Ronnie Hillman ran right at Hightower’s replacement, Jerod Mayo, and delivered as long a run as the Broncos had had all game — 9 yards. On the next play, he broke a Mayo tackle in the backfield on a toss and ran 19 yards to the end zone for the touchdown that got Denver back into the game.
The Broncos ran the ball 16 times with Hightower out, gaining 133 yards for an average of 8.3 per carry. In overtime, C.J. Anderson’s 48yard touchdown run around the left side won the Nov. 29 game.
“It was definitely a problem,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of Denver’s running game. “We just didn’t play very well. Give up 179 yards, I mean, that’s not where we want to be.”
Much of the the focus leading up to Sunday’s rematch with Denver in the AFC championship game has been on Peyton Manning’s return at quarterback in place of Brock Osweiler, who led Denver to the victory over New England. But it’s Hightower’s return to the Patriots’ lineup that might play the biggest role in reversing the outcome from the regular season.
Considering the uncertainty over how Manning will perform at quarterback, Denver may need the type of performance on the ground that it received after Hightower went out in that first meeting. But with the second level of the New England defense shored up by the return of Hightower and Jamie Collins, the Patriots are confident the Broncos won’t be running for 179 yards this time around.
“That’s the No. 1 thing I take pride in — being an aggressive, downhill run stopper,” Hightower said Friday at Gillette Stadium. “That’s what I do. It means a lot to me.”
Hightower is, as Peyton Manning called him this week, the quarterback of the Patriots’ defense. He is the one who will be matching wits with Manning, generally believed to be the best in the NFL at changing the play call at the line of scrimmage. Hightower remembered that cat-and-mouse game from New England’s 2014 meeting with the Broncos.
“I don’t know if it’s fun as much as it’s tricky,” he said. “You don’t want to be in that kind of fight with Manning; he usually wins that. Last year, we had a pretty good plan as far as trying to mix it up and trying to confuse him a little bit. It showed early on, and we kind of had him frizzed a little bit. Hopefully, we can do a little bit of that this year too.”
“He’s like the pilot of the plane,” Patriots cornerback Malcom Brown said of Hightower. “He controls everything. He tells everybody what to do, and we just try to execute that.”
Patriots outside linebacker Dont’a Hightower warms up for practice Thursday.