Dont’a Hightower & The Green Dot

Indianapolis (6-3) hosts New England (7-2) on Sunday night, and the Colts defense will try to slow down the Patriots in-form passing attack. Mark Schofield has reviewed the tape and breaks down how the innovative coverages, willingness to double-cover wide receivers, and struggles against tight ends form the basis of a game plan for Tom Brady.


The New England Patriots can solidify their position as the top seed in the AFC playoffs with a road victory Sunday night against the Indianapolis Colts. While Andrew Luck and company have put up big numbers offensively, the Indianapolis defense has struggled at times this season, particularly against the pass. The Colts have allowed 7.4 yards per passing attempt and an average of 264 yards per game through the air, 6th-most in the league. We reviewed film from 2013 and 2014 to see how this unit plays pass defense.

Like other defenses in the NFL, the Colts employ a number of different coverage schemes in the secondary, including Cover 1 and Cover 3. They also roll coverages prior to the snap to cause confusion in the minds of offensive skill players, as discussed in my “How to Throw on Cover 2” primer earlier this season. One aspect of their defensive mindset that stood out from last season’s playoff game was when Indianapolis used Cover 2.

Cover 2

We start with two examples from the 2013 Divisional Playoff game against New England, which illustrate how the Colts aligned their personnel in this coverage when faced with an empty backfield look. First, the Patriots put Tom Brady in the shotgun with 11 personnel and shift Shane Vereen out of the backfield and into the left slot:

Indianapolis has their nickel defense on the field and they play Cover 2 Man Under.

They add a slight wrinkle to their Cover 2 look later in the game. The Patriots again have Brady in the shotgun and shift Vereen into the right slot. This time, the Colts take outside linebacker Robert Mathis off the edge and walk him out over the RB:

Given the weaknesses of this coverage scheme, look for New England to empty the backfield early on Sunday to see how the Colts respond. If the defense relies on Cover 2 against such a formation, the Patriots should be able to exploit their soft spots.

Cover 6

The Colts also used a fair amount of Cover 6 in their matchup with New England last post-season. On this play the Patriots face 2nd and 9 with 10:02 remaining in the 1st quarter. Brady is in the shotgun flanked by Vereen and Brandon Bolden with the offense using 21 personnel. The nickel defense initially shows Cover 2, but as Michael Hoomanawanui comes in motion from the outside to set up in a stack-slot on the right, the Colts adjust their coverage:

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The defense rolls into Cover 6. The two defensive backs circled in white utilize Cover 2 concepts on their side of the field, with a cornerback in the flat and the safety covering a deep half of the field. On the other side of the defense, the players circled in black play Cover 4 with each responsible for a deep quarter:

 

The Colts play man coverage with their two linebackers on this play, and they fail to properly switch on the underneath crossing routes, leaving Julian Edelman wide open.

Indianapolis continues to use Cover 6 in 2014. Against Baltimore their nickel defense applies this coverage against an empty

Third-year NFL linebacker Dont’a Hightower has once again been forced into the middle of the New England Patriots defense. How has Hightower improved in his second stint as the defensive signal caller?


For the second consecutive season following Week 6, linebacker Dont’a Hightower found himself in familiar territory.

With linebacker Jerod Mayo again suffering a season-ending injury, Hightower has been thrust back into the middle of the New England Patriots defense, both positionally and as the defensive signal caller.

After being used mostly on the perimeter as an outside linebacker (in 3-4 fronts) or defensive end (in fronts with four down linemen) through the first six weeks of the season, Hightower has been pushed inside on a permanent basis in order to replace the injured Mayo ‒ a six-time captain ‒ as owner of the green dot, which designates the one player with a radio in his helmet able to receive play calls from the defensive coordinator.

Hightower, a third-year pro drafted out of the University of Alabama, admitted toward the end of last season that he initially struggled to handle the responsibilities left behind by the absence of Mayo. These struggles were exemplified when head coach Bill Belichick benched Hightower during the second half of a Week 12 win against the Denver Broncos.

But as the season progressed, so did Hightower. He learned how to balance his pre-snap duties as the quarterback of the defense in conjunction with his own post-snap responsibilities. Still, questions concerning whether he was a true fit as a middle linebacker in the Patriots defense followed Hightower into the offseason. Given his usage to begin the year, it appeared that even the New England coaching staff believed a move to the perimeter suited his skillset better.

But, in “Groundhog Day” fashion, here we are again.

Donning The Green Dot

Even during training camp this year, Hightower was open about preferring to have the play-calling duties shifted elsewhere. If the job of an NFL linebacker wasn’t hard enough ‒ with the constant chasing down of ball carriers, shadowing of tight ends and backs in coverage and pressuring quarterbacks ‒ adding in the duties of the defensive signal caller only complicates matters.

The defensive signal caller is responsible for much more than simply relaying the defensive call from the sideline to his teammates. Much like a quarterback, the man with the green dot will engage in a pre-snap game of chess, making sure all the pieces in front of him are in the correct places (e.g., setting the defensive alignment) as well as communicating with the secondary. Using film study and opponent tendencies to his advantage, he must be able to adjust the defensive front or line stunt, or call a blitz on the fly based on particular offensive formations and alignments. In addition, he has to be able to decipher and react to any pre-snap motion and/or suspected audibles that may have placed the defense in a vulnerable spot (e.g., a motioning tight end may force change in coverage, linebacker progressions, and/or pass rush lanes).

Now, imagine doing all the above within 25 seconds (and most of the pre-snap adjustments/reactions happen in the last 12 seconds) and top that off with the actual down to be played once the ball is snapped. It’s easy to see why a then-second-year player had his share of struggles.

This year’s transition to the middle has been a slightly different story. After a return from injury and a rocky start for the Mayo-less defense in Week 7 against the New York Jets ‒ when running back Chris Ivory gashed the Patriots up and down the fieldHightower’s play over the last two weeks has been exceptional.

The Many Hats of Hightower

Hightower Chart

As shown in the table above, the versatility of Hightower has been on display.

Against the Chicago Bears, the Patriots utilized more of their base defense (4-3 front on the day) where Hightower showed up as a run stuffer, especially on the first few defensive series in the contest before the flood gates opened for Tom Brady and the New England offense.

The pass heavy attack of the Denver Broncos in Week 9 forced the Patriots into their sub-package defenses for nearly the entire game. As a result, Hightower was far more active in coverage and as a pass rusher. With the exception of a handful of man coverage situations, Hightower was utilized in zone coverage underneath early and then pressed into intermediate-to-deep middle zone coverage responsibilities once the Broncos fell behind by multiple scores and abandoned the run.

There were only a few obvious negative plays for Hightower among the 152 defensive snaps (three over pursuits and/or poor fits against the run, and two breakdowns in zone coverage assignments). And all of the above simply can’t account for any of Hightower’s pre-snap corrections and adjustments that put the defense in better position to make a play.

Going the Right Way

Hightower demonstrated excellent anticipation and instincts throughout the Patriots’ win over the Bears. Quite often, the key to making a play or missing out on one simply comes down to a defender’s first step.

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Aligned on the weak side of the offensive formation, Hightower has man coverage responsibilities against running back Matt Forte. As seen above, Hightower keys off the motioning RB and gets multiple steps toward the flat before quarterback Jay Cutler even receives the snap. By making a quick, decisive read, Hightower is able to bring down Forte just seconds after he receives the pass, keeping the RB to a minimal gain. Hightower may not have ideal lateral quickness for a linebacker, but his awareness and anticipation helps level the playing field.

Selling the Blitz

A good scheme plus a neat bit of salesmanship from Hightower causes a coverage sack late in the first half against the Bears. The Patriots show blitz pre-snap ‒ and they intend to use it. Cutler correctly concludes that the threat is real and looks to get the ball out quickly to his hot read. The defense anticipates the same. The game is afoot.

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As seen above, New England does send extra pressure but with a wrinkle. Using a zone blitz, the Patriots send linebacker Jamie Collins up the middle and defensive back Logan Ryan from the perimeter. Defensive end Rob Ninkovich and Hightower will drop back into coverage. The key here, though, is the exchange of roles between Hightower and linebacker/defensive end Akeem Ayers (#52). Hightower’s first step implies pressure through the A gap and draws the center away from helping to block Collins. As Hightower drops back into coverage at a diagonal angle, Ayers loops around and brings pressure straight up the gut

For Cutler, it appears his hot read target is open once Ayers vacates the area; Hightower’s eyes read the QB and he is quick to fill the passing lane, forcing Cutler to eat the ball for a sack. It’s a successful play from the Patriots perspective, but very well could have been a pick-six if Cutler attempts the pass.

On the Rush

The next defensive series ends in a touchdown for the Patriots ‒ and it’s once again Hightower doing the damage, this time as a pass rusher.

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Prior to the snap, Hightower aligns himself on the outside hip of the offensive tackle. As the snap is delivered, Hightower presses the C gap (outside of tackle) to force blocker leverage wide but then loops behind and to the inside of defensive tackle Zach Moore (#90). With only Forte to beat, Hightower easily fends off the block and collapses the pocket around Cutler for an eventual strip-sack returned for a touchdown by Ninkovich.

Pre-Snap Reads

Defending Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ offense is no easy task. Perhaps no quarterback, because of the barrage of line calls barked out by Manning before every play, puts more pressure on a defense to read/react before the ball is even snapped.

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Here, Hightower appears to sniff out the Manning audible to an inside zone run. As Manning conferences with his tight end Julius Thomas (#80), Hightower alerts defensive tackle Chris Jones to … something. One can only speculate, but it’s likely, 1) be ready for a run to this side, 2) to instruct which gap Jones should attack and how to do it, and/or 3) which gap Hightower will attack.

Before the handoff takes place, Hightower (correctly) anticipates run. The linebacker hits the running lane hard. Although he’s met by the center, who breaks off his double-team block of Jones, Hightower is able to force the ball carrier into a tight crease that is filled by Collins for the takedown.

While pre-snap reads are critical, what you see and react to after the snap is just as important. Against the run, linebackers key off movement of the running back and/or offensive linemen.

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Getting a quick first step in the right direction is vital for a defender. As seen above, Hightower keys off the running back / handoff action and correctly reads inside draw. With the Broncos using a man-blocking scheme, the offensive tackle (on left) shoots for an angle block on Hightower at the second level. However, the quick get-off by Hightower forces the blocker into the backside of defensive tackle Dominique Easley (#74). Now unopposed, Hightower meets the ball carrier in the hole and rag-dolls him to the ground.

Fluster Manning

When sending more than four pass rushers against Manning on the day, the Patriots were often able to successfully disguise where the extra pressure was coming from ‒ a key against any quarterback, but especially with Manning’s ability to get the ball out quickly to his hot read. Part of the plan to fluster Manning centered on bringing pressure up the middle. Hightower and Collins’ execution prompted a number of hurried and inaccurate throws by Manning.

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As the above video shows, Collins and Hightower swap gaps just prior to the snap. Both linebackers take an initial step toward their respective A gaps, keeping the center unsure in the middle before he eventually attempts to engage Collins. However, Collins drops into coverage underneath while Hightower now has a direct lane to the quarterback, disrupting the timing and accuracy of the pass.

The Patriots continued to bring pressure up the gut against Manning, and again it was Hightower doing the honors:

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Throughout the game when out of the shotgun, the Broncos used a silent count where the guard would signal the center to snap the ball by tapping his leg. In the above play, Hightower uses this indicator to his advantage. As you can see, Hightower is the lone defender on the move as the snap passes through the center’s legs. With defensive tackles Alan Branch (#97) and Vince Wilfork (#75) occupying two blockers apiece, Hightower has a clear path to the QB and a full head of steam to take on and shed the block of the running back. By flushing Manning out of the pocket, Hightower forces the QB into a short pass completion.

In Space

Hightower’s day would not be complete without a stellar play in coverage, an aspect of his game that has often drawn the most criticism during his young career:

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After getting everyone along the defensive front on the same page through a series of arms waves and bunny hops, Hightower shuffles back into coverage at the snap. Defending the intermediate-to-deep middle, the LB has his eyes on tight end Jacob Tamme as he runs a post route. Showing great anticipation of the route being run and good technique, Hightower gains inside leverage underneath the receiver and turns his head to locate the ball just as Manning delivers the pass. With an assist from cornerback Darrelle Revis, the intended pass is broken up by Hightower.

This play capped off an all-around impressive effort from the LB. Hightower shined against the run, in pass coverage and as a pass rusher.

Hightower In Conclusion (So Far)

After suffering from the dreaded sophomore slump that seemed to make many forget about his solid rookie campaign, some fans and football pundits started to wonder about Dont’a Hightower’s future with the team: What position should he play? What defense is best suited for him? Is he even a three-down player? Is he a bust?

To some degree, a lot of those questions have been answered this season. There remains room for improvement and there is no firm answer on if the transition to the middle is permanent or just a placeholder move pending the return of Mayo in 2015, but Hightower has excelled in all facets of the defense in recent weeks. While there is a long way to go and more tests ahead starting with a Week 11 matchup against the Indianapolis Colts and their high-powered offense, Hightower is quietly becoming the new leader of the New England Patriots defense.

All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind.

Follow Brian on Twitter @Brian_Filipiak.

Brian Filipiak knows about proper blocking technique, the basics of run defense, how to defeat an overload, and the point-of-attack.

backfield. RB Justin Forsett splits wide to the right (circled in purple). In response, the nickel defense displays Cover 6:

The two defensive backs to Forsett’s side of the formation implement a Cover 4 alignment, while the two defensive backs on the other side of the field utilize Cover 2.

The Colts also used Cover 6 out of their base 3-4 look against the Ravens. On this play Joe Flacco is under center and Baltimore has 12 personnel on the field with a tight end and receiver to each side of the field. The base defense uses Cover 6 for this play:

The defensive backs at the top of the screen align in Cover 2 positions while the safety and cornerback to the other side of the field utilize Cover 4.

The Colts mix and disguise their coverage schemes, rolling efficiently between different looks and combining coverages on opposite sides of the field on the same play. Expect the Patriots to try and dictate coverage early in the contest by emptying the backfield and forcing Indianapolis to use Cover 2 against New England’s 11 personnel. In Part 2, we will look at how the Colts defense has defended the opposition’s favorite targets.

All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind.

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.

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