They will forever be linked in Patriots history for being not only in the same draft class, but also the same round. Former first-round picks Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower have become integral parts of New England's defense since arriving in Foxborough in 2012.
Jones, drafted 21st overall, had the bigger impact sooner, with Defensive Player of the Month honors last November and finishing his second season with 11.5 sacks, after being named NFL Rookie of the Month in September 2012. The defensive end/outside linebacker followed that up this year already with an AFC Defensive Player of the Week award.
Hightower, meanwhile, was given significant responsibilities on defense last year as the unit's play-caller when fellow linebacker Jerod Mayo was lost to a season-ending injury early on. This year, though, Mayo is back and Hightower seems to be blossoming, making plays as a pass rusher, in pass coverage, and against the run.
"If my rushing is going to help us win, that's what it is. Me rushing on either side with [Rob] Ninkovich and Chandler, it opens up… them sliding to one side gets the one-on-one matchup that we want," Hightower said Wednesday.
Check out photos of Patriots practice and media access leading up to New England's week three game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
As Jones and Hightower have started off strong in 2014, so has the rest of the defense – a second-half meltdown in Miami notwithstanding. Since the opener, the Patriots defense has limited its next two opponents to less than 10 points each and has come up with several big plays – sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles – in all three games.
"That's a credit to the defense working together. Also a credit to the coaches and their game plans and their play calling," Jones asserted. "[Defensive coordinator] Matt Patricia and Coach Belichick do a good job of knowing when to call blitzes or drop us into coverage, things of that nature, to confuse the offense a little bit, to help us create turnovers or big plays."
"I think it's about execution, knowing what's going on," added Hightower. "You can't just put it on the pass rush or the coverage. It's everything together. Whenever we can get to the quarterback, it makes Devin and Revis' job a lot easier, and when those guys make it hard for receivers to get open, the quarterback holds onto the ball and that makes it easier for us."
Hightower also conceded that not having the play-calling duties may be helping him play more freely and be in position to make an impact than before.
"Coach [Belichick] and Matt Patricia allow me to play outside linebacker, to rush after the passer, but still be able to cover backs, dropping in coverage. Just allowing me to have a bigger role in this defense.
"And that's how I want it. I'm able to rush, to drop [into pass coverage], to cover and double a man. I'm able to do a lot. The offense doesn't know if I'm covering or rushing, so that opens up spaces for everybody else. If they zero in on what I'm doing, that helps someone on the other side get the sack or pick."
"Anytime you can get the sacks and TFLs (tackles for loss) and tackles, it's going to be fun. It's not just fun because I'm doing it," Hightower insisted. "To see Chan block a kick and run it back, see Devin [McCourty] and [Darrelle] Revis get picks, it's fun for the defense. It's something we work countless hours each week. For us to go out and execute and do it well makes it fun."
Monday night excitement
New England's one and only appearance on Monday Night Football this season comes this week, when the Patriots travel to Kansas City – a notoriously difficult venue for visiting teams to conquer, regardless of the Chiefs' record.
Each game on the NFL schedule is equally important in the standings, but there's something extra special about Monday night affairs.
"Yeah, definitely, it's only usually once a year you get to play on Monday Night Football. So, it's going to be a lot of fun," admitted tight end Rob Gronkowski. "We know how the atmosphere is on Monday night, especially when it's on the road. It's going to be crazy, it's going to be loud."
"For sure, for sure. I'm not going to lie and say I'm not [extra excited]," echoed Jones. "Everyone's watching. Everyone and their mother is watching. You have the opportunity to showcase your talent and ability for a nationally televised game. I'm excited."
Defensive tackle Sealver Siliga was the only Patriot not on the practice field Wednesday. He was last seen leaving the Oakland game this past Sunday with a foot injury.
With the game taking place on Monday night, the Patriots are not required to submit an injury report until Thursday, so, we won't know more about Siliga's condition until then at the earliest.