LINEBACKER, DONT'A HIGHTOWER
Q: What type of growth have you seen from Malcolm Butler from the last Super Bowl XLIX to now?
DH: Just a lot, man. Just him growing and maturing as the player that he is. A lot can be said about Malcolm [Butler]. [It's] just overall his work ethic. The guy hasn't changed from the first day being here from arguably working to actually having a roster spot to being the number one corner and being the guy and playing the way he has played. It has obviously been good - no, great - having him on this side and with us. I'm just looking forward to going out there this Super Bowl and working with him.
Q: What does Malcolm Butler bring to the team in terms of his personality?
DH: You know, Malcolm [Butler] is - let's just say he's more of a me than a [Martellus] Bennett. He just kind of shows up to work and he has his jokes and stuff here and there but most of the time it's just working hard, doing what he's got to do, coming to work every day with his hard hat. We all have fun in our own ways but I don't think anyone can come close to Marty [Martellus Bennett] on that.
Q: What is this week like for you before you head out to Houston? Are you trying to overload on preparing for the Falcons?
DH: Just overall that. Working on things we need to work on as far as what we can do to make ourselves better before actually getting on to Atlanta, which I'm sure we'll be knee deep in that soon. But it's good to have a little bit of time. I'm sure they're doing the same thing. [They're] just kind of peeking and poking holes in ways that guys have attacked us this year. It's things we need to pick up on and work on and I think we've had a good day of that.
Q: Can you touch on how your head might have been spinning the first time you played in the Super Bowl and how that might be different now having gone through the process already?
DH: I mean overall [there's] not much to it. Obviously there's a lot more at stake and it's a lot more than just the Super Bowl and the preparation and the execution to that point, but [I'm] just trying to treat it for what it is. I mean it's obviously a big game but it is a game. You know, one play at a time and all that good stuff but whenever you try to overlook things like that and try to look past that and worry about Super Bowl things - the atmosphere and stuff like that - you can get lackadaisical and complacent and forget what's going on and lose the task at hand. I just try to do it like any other game week.
Q: Have any of the younger guys asked you or have you talked to any of them about what to expect? If so, what do you say?
DH: Just basically the same thing. I mean obviously the environment and the atmosphere is going to be crazy. I mean it's already hyped because a lot of guys grow up looking for this moment and to have it in front of you, I mean that alone is enough hype, and then you guys fuel a lot of hype and then just the overall atmosphere. Obviously just to be a sponge. These next two weeks just to learn and be a sponge and just continue to do the things we've done all year and just to approach it the same way.
Q: Can you point to a certain turning point or event where the defense starting gelling this season?
DH: [That's] kind of hard off the top of my head. I want to say that the San Francisco game was the biggest jump that it kind of came out. I feel like we were a little bit more aggressive in our play calls and Matty P [Matt Patricia] called a heck of a game and from that point on I definitely feel like just overall everybody just kind of fell in and we've been able to execute a lot better just maybe doing a little bit different things. I think, overall I think, maybe that San Fran game kind of turned things around and [we] kind of knew our identity and just kind of ran with it.
Q: How different are you now than you were when you were drafted back in 2011? Do you look around and realize that you're one of the few veteran defenders remaining from those past teams as you head to the Super Bowl?
DH: A little bit. I definitely thought I knew a little bit more than I thought I did being younger. But having [Jerod] Mayo, having Vince [Wilfork] and even Dev [Devin McCourty], in that case it definitely humbled me quick. It helped me grow and mature, Mayo and Vince especially in the front seven, but the things that they taught me - how to be a pro, how to take care of your body, how to watch film, how to look at certain things, just overall how to be a pro - some of those things I try to implement in E-Rob [Elandon Roberts], Vince [Vincent] Valentine, some of those young guys, J-Jones [Jonathan Jones], Malcolm Mitchell, just overall trying to give back and trying to give hints that those guys might need that I thought I needed.
Q: Do you feel an added responsibility or connection to this team because you are viewed as a face of this defense?
DH: I've definitely embraced it. It's something that I feel like at a certain point in everybody's career wants that. I'm just ready for whatever they put on my plate, whether it's loaded or not, and just try to do what's expected me. There has been times where it worked and times where it hasn't. It's part of the learning curve and that's just something that comes with football and life, and I'll just keep trying to move on that and keep trying to hold my spot as well as I can for my teammates.
Q: Do you enjoy it more now because of where you're at in your career?
DH: Absolutely, because these are times that every little boy growing up [and] wanting to play in the NFL, and play for a Super Bowl, and play for a great defense, and to be that guy that his teammates look up to and talk to whether it's football or whatever. Again, I embrace it, I love it. I feel like it's less pressure whenever you have higher expectations like that from your teammates. They expect you to know the defense. If a guy asks me a question, 'What do I have on this play?' and you can quickly relay it, I feel like those are things that a 'Mike' linebacker should do and those are things I've put on my plate and that I expect for my teammates to expect for me.
Q: How much do you embrace this opportunity going up against the Falcons?
DH: Just like any other. Obviously this is a good team and obviously a great offense with Matt Ryan and Julio [Jones] and the way that they do things with [Tevin] Coleman and [Devonta] Freeman. Kyle Shanahan does a great job of putting those guys in great opportunities. From the same aspect Matty P [Matt Patricia] does a good job of putting us in good positions to defend those things that obviously other offenses want to do. It'll be a good matchup and I'm surely looking forward to it.
Q: How much of practice do you spend just working on the communication and hearing between all sides?
DH: I mean it's just part of practice. I've had a lot of practice with it. I was a signal caller before I got here but it's just definitely something that it takes time with it. You would think it would be easy for Matt P [Matt Patricia] to call in a play and for you to just say it and that's it, but it takes time in practice. I had a lot of that in 2013, I feel like that's what really helped me and push me in this direction. It's something that E-Rob [Elandon Roberts], he had to get used to Matty P talking to him in his head while he's getting ready to play. But it's definitely a learning experience but it's something that I wouldn't want to go back and do two times.
Q: How are you feeling physically?
DH: I feel like I've been playing football for a year.
Q: What have you seen from Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy? Why do you think they've been able to make some big plays at big times?
DH: Just from what I know - K.V. [Kyle Van Noy] has never been my teammate and neither has Shea [McClellin] - so obviously all I know is what I've seen since they got here. They've both been really good football players. [They're] both really smart. I think that the reason we're able to do a lot of things and a lot of movement is because those guys understand the playbook and we're able to communicate and do things a lot better now as far as we were earlier this season. Just as far as those guys making plays, they make those plays in practice a lot. So having those guys, whether it's Shea jumping over and blocking a field goal or K.V. getting a pick or a check or something, those are things that, again, once those guys are implemented into the defense, we know we expect them to make it. They make them in practice so we expect them to make them in games and they're able to do that.
Q: What is your relationship with Courtney Upshaw given your background together?
DH: That's my ace. That was my roommate. One of the few guys we actually got real close to coming in together. Coming from Alabama there was only like three guys from Tennessee that actually went [to Alabama] like out of state or whatever. So me and [Courtney] Upshaw got gelled pretty close. We talked the other day or whatever, so we're still pretty close.
Q: Is it extra cool when a guy like Courtney Upshaw is on the other side in these meaningful playoff games?
DH: Absolutely, because there's going to be some [trash] talking after the game whether it's win or lose. But definitely it feels good to see a guy - I mean we literally grew up together as far as the football aspect of it goes. It'll be fun, it'll be good. Hopefully I'm on the right side of it. It's always good to have a guy on the opposite end just to talk a little smack during the week.
Q: Is this the scariest offense that you guys have had to prepare for this year?
DH: It's a very, very talented offense. Again, there's not one thing that you can point out and say stop Julio Jones, stop [Mohamed] Sanu, stop the running game, because Matt Ryan does a good job of distributing the ball to who's open and Kyle Shanahan does a good job of mixing those calls up and putting those guys in the best situation. They literally just do a really good job on offense.
Q: Is it an adjustment for you having to rotate in and out of games? How have you handled that?
DH: It is but in the long shot [run] it's really kind of knowing your role and accepting what it is. I mean Bill [Belichick], Matty P [Matt Patricia] and Josh [McDaniels] and Joe Judge are going to do the best job that they can as far as putting the right guys out there and calling the right calls. If rotating, however we're doing it, if that's the call, if that's the play I'm not here to argue as long as we get that 'dub' [win] at the end.
Q: How much of that is preservation for what you're dealing with or how much of that is strictly game plan?
DH: That's something for Bill [Belichick]. [I'm] the same as you. They tell me I'm down a series or we're rotating or whatever, I'm not here to [complain] and argue.
Q: What is it about this program that helps guys, such as Malcolm Butler recently, come in and find their own and excel?
DH: You know, I think it's part of the program and the way things are ran here. A lot of people talk about the 'Patriot Way'. There's not a straight definition of it but here you know that we're going to work every day. Whether it's just coming in for run groups, it's expected to get better. Around here you're either getting better or you're getting worse. That's kind of the mantra that's kind of bestowed around here. Also, a lot of the players that you just said are guys who work hard, who already have that in them. They already have that dog in them, maybe it's just not the right way that they're doing it. I feel like Bill [Belichick] does a great job of that, of getting the right stuff out of guys and saying the right things to get them to work hard.
Q: Bill Belichick said earlier today that you're going to see formations that you haven't seen all year form the Falcons. How do you prepare for that?
DH: I think the easiest way about that is to just be a smart football player. And with saying that I mean just overall knowing the philosophy and know what concepts they like to attack and, again, just kind of being a coach on the field whenever - seeing things on the field - maybe they hit a big play and you kind of realize what it is. Maybe they're attacking in-cuts or something or maybe they're doing something. Being able to adjust and get that and being able to relay it. Logan Ryan is great at that - seeing things and talking to us throughout the play, 'Be alert for this.' Dev [Devin McCourty], [Patrick] Chung, I mean a lot of guys even in the front with the run game. That really helps us as far as adjustments and stuff. Being a smart football player definitely helps.
Q: Does it help in any way to have an offense yourselves that is almost brilliant at doing that?
DH: Yeah. I don't want to go too deep but our offense does kind of the same things that they do. Josh [McDaniels] does a great job as far as putting guys in great spots. I mean [Chris] Hogan had a [heck] of a game the other night. We see it in practice and we go against a great quarterback every day and a [darn] good receiving corps as well, and the running backs, too. So we've got what we have at practice and I definitely think that helps.
WIDE RECEIVER, MATTHEW SLATER
Q: What differences have you noticed in Malcolm Butler as a player and as a teammate from your last Super Bowl appearance to now?
MS: I think when you look at Malcolm [Butler], that's one of the most unbelievable stories and journeys of the last 30 years in pro football. To go from a guy who was a tryout guy, not even a free agent, to that same year, one of the best plays in Super Bowl history. I think the growth that he's shown over the last couple of seasons has been tremendous. He's gone from a guy who was, as you said, a depth player, to now a top corner; a guy who we heavily rely on, a guy who we match up with the other team's best receiver at times. What you've seen is really just a guy who has grown in confidence, who has grown in his understanding of the game, a guy who's not afraid to compete, a guy who is not afraid of the moment, and I think he just continues to get better and better. What a joy it is to see that story from the beginning to where it is now. I think it's really awesome. Who knows where he ends up, but if he keeps working the way he does, good things are going to keep happening for him.
Q: What does Malcolm Butler bring to the locker room from a teammate's perspective?
MS: Oh man, he's a lot of fun. He's a lot of fun in the locker room. You know those DBs [defensive backs], they like to talk a lot. They keep us on our toes, they keep us laughing, and Malcolm [Butler] is no different. He's a great teammate. We have a lot of fun with him, so guys like that you're thankful to have on your team.
Q: What's it like to have a team that's so even keel?
MS: It really helps. Not only the big game, but over the course of the season there are going to be highs and lows. There are going to be things that don't go your way and then things that do go your way, but you just have to stay the course until you see the thing out to the end. I think the maturity that we have on this football team, even with our young players, to be able to handle big moments, to be able to handle adversity, it's really been impressive over the course of the season. Hopefully we can continue that trend here over the next couple of weeks, and we have to understand that when we go into this game, everything is not going to go our way. The football team across from us is far too good, so that even keel mentality that you mentioned is definitely something that we're going to have to display come Super Bowl Sunday. I think, again, it speaks to our leadership starting with Coach [Bill Belichick]. They say you are a reflection of your coach. There is no one more even keel than him, you guys know that. We're thankful to be where we're at and hopefully we can see that out in the next two weeks.
Q: Has it sunk in that you're going back to another Super Bowl yet again?
MS: I think it hit me the other night; sitting at home talking with my wife, talking with my dad who maybe is a little jealous of me, but it's really unbelievable to think that in the last six years, we've been to three of these. Guys play 20 years and go to one or none, so we're really thankful for the position that we're in. We're excited about the opportunity to play one last football game with this group of guys and we don't take it for granted.
Q: As a leader, do you take it upon yourself to let some of these younger guys know what's to come in these next few days?
MS: Well the last couple of days it was, 'Hey, make sure you take care of all your ticket business, hotel business, travel business, because you don't want that to be a distraction and it can be if you don't handle it.' As we get closer to the game I'm sure we'll have conversations with guys who haven't been there about what to expect, how things are going to be once we get down there, but I'll say this - when you get to the game itself, I've learned this from Coach [Bill] Belichick, it's not about experience. It's not about who has played in the game. It's about who plays well in the game. So case in point, Malcolm Butler, had he played in the big game before? No. Had he played in the first and second quarter? No. But when his number was called and he needed to execute, he did. I can be out here, this is going to be my third Super Bowl, and if I go out there and I don't play well, it doesn't matter. Super Bowl experience doesn't matter. It's about playing well come next Sunday.
Q: Is that what stands out to you, not being afraid of the moment?
MS: Certainly. We all understand what's at stake, but it's the same type of football that you played Week One. It's football. The field's not wider, the field's not longer, the ball hasn't changed. The stakes are obviously higher, but it's football and I think you have to walk a fine line between having an extreme sense of urgency and being loose and confident. Hopefully we can find that balance and hopefully that leads to us being not afraid of the moment but prepared for the moment and ready to embrace it.
Q: What do the Falcons present on special teams? What have you learned about them?
MS: Well, I'll say Eric Weems has been a guy over the course of his career that's been one of the better special teams players in the league all around. A coverage guy as a well as a returner, and I think it all starts with him. He's a captain of that unit. He's been doing this thing for 10 years. Then around him, they have great core guys that really buy into the system there. They've got a coach that has been there almost a decade, so they know what they're doing. Keith Armstrong, who worked for Scott O'Brien, so obviously he knows what he's doing. These guys do what they do and they do it well, so they're going to be challenging for us to handle. We're going to have to be up on our prep. We're not familiar with them personnel-wise, so we're going to have to have good study. This is a very good group.
Q: Will your dad be at this Super Bowl? If so, how many games does he get to and what does that mean to you?
MS: He will be there. It's been tough for him because he's coaching now in southern California at Azusa Pacific University and he works for a football team in Los Angeles by the name of the Rams. He does some work with them, so it's tough for him to travel. I really appreciate when he's able to get to games. It means a lot to me. Like I said, I got into football because of my dad. As a son, you look to a father, and any son who has a father that's present in the home and that's a good role model wants to do what his father does, and for me, it just so happened my dad played football. My love of the game, my passion for the sport has come from him. Whenever he is in the house, I'm always trying to go as hard as I can, trying to make plays. I want to make him proud.
Q: Do you remember the last game your father was at?
MS: Let's see, well he was at a game earlier this year against a team from Los Angeles, but I was inactive that game, so I was really disappointed about that. But dating back to that, it was last year, so I'm excited about being out there, him my mom, my brother, my wife, my son. This will be exciting.
Q: You come from a family with a proud football tradition. How important is it to you for your son to be there to take part in this grand stage?
MS: It's very important. You think about this Super Bowl experience and it's the pinnacle of any players experience to be able to play in the Super Bowl and to be able to share it with the people you love most. That's really important, to have all of my family there and my son, who has given me new purpose and new motivation as I work later in my career. It's really been great for me to have him there. He'll have no clue what's going on, but we'll be able to tell him one day 'You were at the Super Bowl at Super Bowl LI,' so pretty cool.
Q: What does it say about the personnel guys and the coaching staff here that some relatively obscure guys are able to come here at different points in their career and have success?
MS: Well, I think you look at the sustained success that we've had form '01 until now, you can't do it without guys that know what they're looking for in the personnel department, and you can't do it without a great coaching staff that knows how to develop talent. So between finding talent and developing talent, you have to give kudos to Nick Caserio, Coach [Bill] Belichick and then obviously our whole coaching staff for what they've been able to do. I don't think they get enough credit for the way they develop players here and the players that they've been able to find. Since we're going to reference him today, the Malcolm Butler's of the world. They do a great job of that, so we're thankful for those guys. They don't get a lot of shout outs, but we'll give them one today.
Q: Is Julian Edelman an example of one of those types of guys?
MS: Certainly. Here's a guy who didn't play a down of receiver until he got here, didn't really know how to get into a receiver stance - I give him a hard time about that - but here he is as an elite player in this league, not just an elite player on this team, but an elite player in this league. I think that really goes to show you Chad O'Shea, the time he spent with him, Nick Caserio, Josh McDaniels, even back to Billy O [Bill O'Brien] when he was here. That process has been a fun one to watch.
Q: Did this team have a galvanizing moment like the 'On to Cincinnati' moment from two years ago?
MS: I don't like to compare season to season, but I think we had that Seattle game, a game that we felt like we didn't play our best and obviously wasn't the result that we wanted. We definitely had a choice; we can sulk and feel sorry for ourselves, or try and move on and keep getting better. Since that game we've continued to improve. We haven't become complacent. We've put ourselves obviously in a good situation. I wouldn't say it's the same as that Kansas City destruction that we experienced, but it was kind of a turning point in the season.
Q: Some guys in the locker room mentioned that span of games with Baltimore, Denver and the Jets that showed some mental and physical toughness against some good opponents. Could that possibly have been a turning point?
MS: That was big for us, especially the win in Denver. It felt like we had the yips or something when we go in there. We couldn't get it done, so to go in there and finally get a win I think gave our team a lot of confidence. And then obviously the Baltimore win prior to that was big for us as well. I think those three games in that stretch, you're right, it said a lot about who we were not only physically on the field, but mentally to be able to get through that and win out. That was definitely big for us.