FOXBORO -- Dont'a Hightower will not let another broken defensive cog change the way he plays. The loss of fellow linebacker Brandon Spikes, who hit IR Monday, is a burden the defense must bear collectively.
It's a lesson Hightower learned the hard way.
"Usually, whenever a guy tries to step up and be kind of a vocal leader or do too much outside the box of what they normally do, it kind of puts themselves in a tough position," he said Tuesday. "I've been there, I've done that, tried to do too much. It didn't work for me, but I fell back, and everything is finally coming back in to play."
The 23-year old fell under the spotlight when starter Jerod Mayo suffered a season-ending injury October 13. Mayo is a six-year Patriot, a captain, a two-time Pro Bowler and an All-Pro. It should surprise no one to hear Hightower felt pressure in filling such shoes.
"[I was] just trying to do a little too much," he admitted.
It was unfortunately obvious.
Hightower, a first-round pick in 2012, was a starter from Week 1. He finished his rookie season with 60 tackles and four sacks in 14 games. Expectations for the following year were high, and none were higher than the player's own.
That's why Hightower's play this season has been surprising. In Mayo's stead, he sometimes appeared a step behind or even out of place.
Like in the Week 11 loss to Carolina. On one second quarter defensive play, New England sent a five-man rush at Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Hightower hit the wrong gap and ran straight into the back of one of his teammates. Newton saw space and took off, gaining 24 yards on the third-and-6.
Hightower looked so lost the following week against Denver he was benched in the second quarter and never returned to the field.
But things got better.
"I fell back in my box and everybody around me had my back," he recalled. "It is what it is."
The linebacker cleared his head and regained focus. Two weeks after the Broncos game, he had the green dot back on his helmet and was receiving calls for the defense. By Week 15, in Miami, he appeared more confident.
Now, he just needs to maintain. Losing Spikes at the start of New England's postseason run is a problem, but not for Hightower alone.
"I just need to do my job," he said. "I don't need to make a tremendous catch, I just need to do my job -- make sure everybody's lined up, make sure everybody's got the right communication. After that, playmakers will make plays."