HOUSTON — Dont’a Hightower is making a habit of being overshadowed in Super Bowls.
The Patriots linebacker made one of the most important plays of Super Bowl LI, one that many people will be quick to overlook. With the Patriots trailing by 16 and about 8 1⁄2 minutes left in the fourth quarter, he sacked the Falcons’ Matt Ryan on a blitz, forced a fumble, gave the Patriots the ball at the Atlanta 25 and changed the tenor of the comeback from a long-shot possibility to a conceivable outcome.
Those who matter most will not soon forget it.
“It was a huge play he made for us,” coach Bill Belichick said Monday morning after his team’s 34-28 overtime victory. “I’m not sure we would have won without that play. You could probably say that about 50 plays last night, but that’s certainly got to be near the top of the list.”
Two years ago, Hightower’s big play against the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX also was relegated to afterthoughts. Just about everyone remembers Malcolm Butler’s game-sealing interception at the goal line and wonders why the Seahawks didn’t run the ball with Marshawn Lynch. Well, on the previous play, they did run Lynch from the 5. Hightower, who was being blocked by Russell Okung, managed to bring Lynch down short of the goal line. The next play was the pass, and the game was over.
The play against Ryan will stand out a little more because it was a turnover. But in an overtime game that featured a crazy catch, a quarterback passing for 466 yards and a third-string running back scoring three touchdowns and a two-point conversion, it can be hard to fight through the clutter of storylines.
Almost as hard as fighting through the line to hit Ryan.
“I think they had actually run that play maybe once or twice the previous series,” Hightower said after the game. “I guess [Devonta] Freeman didn’t see me outside and I guess he went to chip or check and just lost sight of me. I’d seen Matt Ryan with the ball in his hands and I wanted it, so I hit him and took it from him.”
Belichick said it looked from the sideline as if Freeman would pick up the blitz. “Dont’a put an outside move on him,” he said, “and he was able to knock the ball free.”
The Patriots still had to score 16 points to tie the score and a touchdown in overtime to win, but that takeaway — the only turnover by the Falcons in the postseason — set the stage for all of it.
“I think we needed a play like that somewhere along the line in this game,” Belichick said, “and that was the time that we got it and the time we needed it.”