FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Dont’a Hightower and the New England Patriots defense have made great strides since their season-opening loss.
Their past two opponents totaled one offensive touchdown. And the third-year linebacker had 15 tackles and two sacks in those games.
Those were against Miami, Minnesota and Oakland, three teams with mediocre quarterbacks. The defense’s job gets tougher Monday against the Kansas City Chiefs and Alex Smith on the road.
But Smith will have to figure out where the versatile Hightower is coming from. He’s solid against the running game and has unusual coverage skills for a 270-pounder.
“I’m able to rush, to drop, to cover, zone (defense), man (defense). I’m doing a lot,” Hightower said Wednesday. “Whenever I’m doing that, the offense doesn’t know if I’m dropping or if I’m covering or rushing or what’s going on so that opens up spaces for everybody else.”
Smith, though, has talented wide receivers Dwayne Bowe and Donnie Avery and running back Jamaal Charles. A sprained right ankle sidelined Charles in last Sunday’s 34-15 win at Miami, but Knile Davis stepped in and ran for 132 yards and a touchdown.
Another running back, Joe McKnight, had six catches for 64 yards and two touchdowns. And Smith directed three touchdown drives of more than 60 yards.
“You don’t see a lot of backs with that speed, with that vision, with his skill,” Hightower said of Charles. “If he’s not playing then they have so many other playmakers to give the ball to.”
The Chiefs (1-2) won last Sunday in the same stadium where the Patriots lost their opener 33-20 when they were outscored by the Dolphins 23-0 in the second half. Hightower had just one tackle in that game.
“The first thing you see is speed when you look at their depth chart. You just look at their running backs,” Hightower said. “They definitely have a lot of speed. Then I feel like (coach) Andy Reid does a great job getting those guys open in space.”
But since that poor half in Miami, the Patriots beat the Vikings 30-7 then won their home opener 16-9 over the Raiders.
Hightower and defensive end Chandler Jones were drafted four spots apart (21st and 25th) in the first round in 2012.
Jones led the Patriots (2-1) with eight tackles and two sacks at Minnesota. Jones also blocked a field goal attempt and returned the ball for a touchdown.
Against the Raiders, Hightower had seven tackles and the 6-foot-5, long-armed Jones knocked down two passes.
“I wish I had his wingspan, but I don’t,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. “He’s a very talented young player. And for him, the more he’s doing it and the more experience he gets, he’s just going to get better.”
That’s what the Patriots defense is doing after allowing three drives of at least 50 yards in the second half against the Dolphins.
“We’re just moving forward,” Jones said. “Miami, that was Week One. A lot of things never happen the way you want it in Week One, good and bad. But you’re just moving forward and we have a big game Monday night.”
Smith is not one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks, but has been more successful than Miami’s Ryan Tannehill, Minnesota’s Matt Cassel and Oakland rookie Derek Carr.
“He’s got great feet and he makes all the throws,” Ninkovich said. “He’s definitely somebody you have to account for, scrambling and making plays, getting out of the pocket, throwing down the field and running the ball as well.”
Smith will try to do that against a stingy defense.
Linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork have played well after being sidelined most of last season.
The addition of cornerback Darrelle Revis improved a deep secondary. And second-year players Logan Ryan at cornerback and Jamie Collins at linebacker have played well.
“I feel like we’re on the right track,” Hightower said. “We had two really good weeks. We’re definitely just trying to keep stringing them together.”