PHOENIX -- You know the story. Last year’s crushing playoff defeat inspires wide-scale defensive upgrades, which pay off in a triumphant return to the Super Bowl, with a much more balanced and dangerous team this time around.
Hey, wait a second. Wasn’t that supposed to be the storyline in Denver this season?
Except New England wound up stealing the Broncos’ script, successfully playing the role that Denver thought it had locked up when it added the likes of DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward in March 2014. But while much credit is due the Patriots for their high-level makeover at cornerback, which brought the field-tilting talents of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to Foxboro, the reality is the Patriots wouldn’t be making yet another Super Bowl run without the improvement and emergence of several different players on defense, first and foremost the freakishly athletic linebacking tandem of Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins.
In New England, which lost big at Denver in last season’s AFC Championship Game, the leadership and production of veterans like Revis and Browner has been instrumental and solidified the Patriots' secondary in ways large and small. But the youth and playmaking of Hightower, Collins and others has been equally irreplaceable, and provides perhaps the biggest reason many feel the Patriots now field their most talented and deep defensive unit since the franchise’s back-to-back Super Bowl champions of 2003-04.
It's instructive to remember that New England lost its past two Super Bowl appearances when its high-octane offense sputtered and failed against the underdog New York Giants (in early 2008 and '12). But now, its best shot to win that long-coveted fourth ring might rest in the hands of a defense that could throw up a challenging roadblock in front of Russell Wilson and the rest of the Seattle Seahawks' offense. The Patriots' defense might lack the panache, profile and pedigree of Seattle’s suffocating and well-decorated unit, but don’t be surprised if the story of Super Bowl XLIX on Sunday revolves around New England’s ability to frustrate and deny the Seahawks’ creativity on offense.
"I definitely feel that with this year’s defense, with the mentality we have, it’s more or less nobody can stop us, we can only stop ourselves," said Hightower, who has emerged in his third NFL season as the leader of the Patriots' defense, and its most consistent presence. “We’ve proven some things to ourselves throughout this season, and it goes the other way too. If we don’t finish one or two plays, it can turn into either a loss or a big play. But knowing what we have here, and the opportunity at hand, it gives you a confidence booster, and at the same time, it makes us all work even harder because we know how much talent we have."
When Patriots defensive captain Jerod Mayo went down with a torn patellar tendon in Week 6, Hightower and Collins stepped forward to fill the void, and both have flourished, with New England playing roughly 70 percent of its snaps in its sub-package defense, with just two linebackers on the field. Hightower missed four games due to injury, but still finished second on the team with 89 tackles (nine for loss), with a career-best six sacks and a forced fumble, assuming the key role of defensive signal-caller once Mayo was lost.
Collins, a second-round pick in 2013, has been a playmaking revelation, with a team-leading 116 tackles, to go with four sacks, four fumbles forced, two fumble recoveries and two interceptions. In the Patriots' postseason wins over Baltimore and Indianapolis, Collins again sparkled, racking up 15 combined tackles, with an interception and three passes defensed.
Collins shuns the media spotlight, but his disruptive play has spoken volumes of his importance in the Patriots' scheme. New England head coach Bill Belichick said a mouthful when asked recently about Collins’ rapid emergence this season.
"Jamie Collinses don’t [grow on trees]," he said. “It’s not like there’s two or three dozens of them in the draft every year. We’re luck to have one. Was Lawrence Taylor a prototype outside linebacker? Where’s the next Lawrence Taylor? Those guys don’t grow on trees."
Both Collins and Hightower are side-to-side linebackers, capable of chasing down ballcarriers all over the field, with the skillset to both rush the passer and drop into coverage and handle running with tight ends and running backs. It’s highly anticipated that one of them, probably Hightower, will be tasked with the role of "spying" on Wilson in the Super Bowl, trying to limit his ability to break off big runs in the Seattle ground game. With the Patriots' defense playing the most stifling man coverage in the NFL this season, containing Wilson’s effectiveness when he leaves the pocket (he has an NFL quarterback-high 849 yards rushing and six touchdowns) will be pivotal.
"Jamie is really not a selfish person and he always does whatever’s asked of him," Hightower said. "There are a lot of times when that means guarding a team’s really good tight end or running back wherever they go. He might not get every tackle sometimes, but Jamie’s a great player, a great athlete and the one thing I can say about him is, he’s never going to be one of those guys who has freakish athletic ability but doesn’t take full advantage of it. He’s always the first guy who wants to watch film. He’s in there and he’s focused and he knows what’s going on."
But it’s Hightower, a first-round pick, 25th overall in 2012, who is the self-styled "football nerd" in the Patriots’ defensive meeting room. The former two-time All-America pick out of Alabama has played for both Nick Saban and Bill Belichick -- the most highly regarded and regimented head coaches in the college and NFL game -- and he has absorbed their get down into the nitty gritty style of studying the game. If there are two better defensive minds to learn from, Hightower has no idea who they might be.
"Playing for Coach Saban, and then getting here, and learning from Bill, staying in that coaching tree, has definitely helped grow my football IQ a lot more than I would be able to on my own," Hightower said. "I just try to know everything I can as far as the X’s and O’s go, especially in the case of certain teams that like to do certain things against you. I always like to know and study a team as if I was an offensive coordinator, knowing where their weak spots are and how you use them against them to change the game."
With Revis and Browner giving the Patriots the comfort and confidence in pass coverage to rely so heavily on man defense, the benefits to New England’s front seven have been manifold. The Patriots’ pass rush doesn’t feature an overabundance of talent, but it got the job done, finishing with 40 sacks (13th overall) and displaying versatility and athleticism with defensive ends Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones and the surprising Akeem Ayers, matched with the heft and run-stuffing of defensive tackles Vince Wilfork, Chris Jones, Sealver Siliga and Alan Branch.
Ayers has been an especially unexpected find, with the former first-round Titans' linebacker wearing the label of draft bust in Tennessee but immediately contributing big-play production upon arriving in New England after his acquisition in October. Ayers stepped into the unfamiliar defensive end role when Jones missed six games with a hip injury, and wound up chipping in with four sacks and an interception, in addition to playing tight pass coverage when asked.
In New England’s most recent nine games -- a 7-2 record that includes a meaningless loss to Buffalo in Week 17 -- the Patriots' defense has come together to allow only an average of 17 points and 327.4 yards per game, and last week’s 45-7 domination of the Colts in the AFC title game provided the exclamation point. The Colts’ Andrew Luck-led passing game was virtually non-existent, with Indy’s top four receivers from the regular season -- T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, Reggie Wayne and Hakeem Nicks -- catching a total of two passes for 51 yards throughout the game. Two catches for 51 yards. So, good luck, Seattle.
"Having Revis and Browner in the back end helped a lot this year," Hightower said. "From a gameplan aspect, we were able to do a lot more things than we were able to do in the past. We’re able to play the game differently now, and play a lot of different ways with a lot of different looks. We’re able to put [strong safety] Patrick Chung in the box more, and we’re able to try more things up front, knowing we have a little more cushion on the back end.
"Every year I’ve been here, which hasn’t been a long time, we just keep getting closer and closer on defense. We keep getting pieces of the puzzle. As far back as OTAs, you could definitely tell that this thing had a little bit more upside than we’ve had in the past. We added a lot more older guys, and what they gave us was obvious. You can just tell a big difference in the talent that’s here now, and us younger guys are all trying to step up and do our part."
The defensive upgrade plan worked brilliantly in New England, but it didn’t yield the expected results in Denver. While the Broncos are starting over to a degree after making a head coaching change from John Fox to Gary Kubiak, the Patriots and Belichick are back where we have seen them so many times before: in the Super Bowl. And this time, they’re bringing their best defense in at least a decade to the game’s grandest stage.