There is no question that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is the MVP of both Super Bowl XLIX and LI. However, even the best quarterbacks can’t win championships by themselves. They need a supporting cast full of playmakers on offense, defense and special teams.
Brady had a spectacular supporting cast that helped him capture his fourth and fifth championship led by linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who singlehandedly changed the outcome of Super Bowl 49 and 51.
Hightower, from the University of Alabama, was selected no. 25 overall in the 2012 NFL draft by New England. Flying under the radar, Hightower quietly had a solid rookie season playing as a strong outside linebacker.
For the next two seasons, the Tennesse native developed into a versatile linebacker that could make a positive impact at both strongside and weakside linebacker.
Despite his solid play, Hightower was overshadowed by fellow rising stars LB Jamie Collins and LB Chandler Jones. These three players, along with LB Rob Ninkovich and LB Akeem Ayers, gave New England one of the best linebacker corps in the NFL.
Super Bowl XLIX
Fast forward to Super Bowl XLIX.
The Patriots were down ten points in the fourth quarter and head coach Bill Belichick was giving a pep talk to his linebackers to simply “do their job”.
Hightower must have taken this to heart because he did his job and a whole lot more.
After WR Jermaine Kearse’s miracle catch to set up the Seahawks on the 5-yard line, Hightower did the impossible and saved the Patriots from losing Super Bowl 49.
On the next play, the Seahawks ran a simple stretch play to the outside. At this point, the Patriots defense seemed to be in trouble. Outside linebacker Ayers, the only player doing his job correctly, held the edge and forced Lynch to run inside.
Unfortunately, New England had a cornerback in the B-gap where Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch was running and the corner got steamrolled by a Seattle guard. The play was busted wide open.
It was an open box between the line of scrimmage and the goal line. Lynch could have and should have easily run into the end-zone for a touchdown. Yet, this is where Hightower shined.
Hightower originally manning the A-gap, somehow managed to find his way to the B-gap where he was met by offensive tackle Russel Okung. At this point, Okung was setup for a textbook block on Hightower. However, Hightower showed superhuman strength and bench pressed Okung off of him. Hightower then found the ball carrier, Lynch, and managed to bring him down at the one-yard line despite a simultaneous chip block.
For the entire game, the Patriots defense struggled to ever tackle Lynch. Yet, on the second to last play, when the defense was worn down, Hightower somehow brought Lynch down with his shoulder.
This one play sums up, in my opinion, why Hightower should be credited as the unsung hero of Super Bowl 49. He illustrated insane football IQ and athleticism to take on a responsibility that wasn’t his.
His incredible accomplishment gave his teammate, CB Malcolm Butler, the chance to intercept Seattle QB Russell Wilson on the ensuing play.
Super Bowl LI
At the start of the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI, New England faced a 19-point deficit.
Everyone knew that time was running out for the Patriots. They needed a huge defensive play to give Brady a chance.
Luckily, Brady didn’t have to wait too long for an opportunity thanks to LB Dont’a Hightower.
After a Gostkowski field goal, the Falcons faced a third and short and were poised to continue their drive to cement their victory.
On this play, QB Matt Ryan was solely focused on passing the ball to the left. By chance, this killed the Falcons play. Falcons RB Devonta Freeman, who was supposed to pass block, ran into the flat.
Freeman must have forgotten his blocking assignment because he was expecting nothing but a short toss from Ryan. If Matt Ryan even glanced to the right side of the field, he would have dumped the ball off to Freeman for a first down and a whole lot more.
This was possible because Hightower, who initially seemed to be in man coverage with Freeman, completely abandoned Freeman and went in an all out pursuit for Ryan.
This was an unbelievable play because it was hard to believe that defensive coordinator Matt Patricia would call an all-out blitz that would leave Freeman alone.
Hightower, disregarding the call, made his own split decision. Perhaps he recognized that Freeman was in there just to pass block or, maybe, Hightower is a mad man that took a gamble. Either way, Hightower showed elite athleticism and football IQ to get to Ryan and strip the ball away.
If Hightower was slowed even by a few milliseconds, Ryan could have at least got the ball out of his hands to put the Patriots in a very tough situation. Instead, the Patriots are set up inside Atlanta’s 25-yard line with the chance to make it a one-possession game.
Dont’a Hightower is easily the unsung hero for New England because of these two plays.
Both of the aforementioned plays were set up perfectly by the opposing team. Yet, Hightower showed incredible football acumen and athleticism to completely flip the outcome of those two plays.
Players such as WR Julian Edelman and CB Butler played some of their best football in those two games, but they simply just did their job.
Hightower, on the other hand, did more than just his job on the biggest play in each game and should be considered an MVP of the defense and the unsung hero in both Super Bowls.
New England seems to know how important Hightower is by rewarding him with a new four-year contract worth $43.5 million. It shows how good Hightower is if Belichick wants to pay him over $10 million per year.