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New England Patriots

New England Patriots

The Patriots will try to keep the "Cheetah," Tyreek Hill from getting loose and making big plays for Miami. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

  • No team was hotter than the Dolphins leaving November for December with a five-game winning streak, a share of first place in the AFC East, holding a tie-breaking edge over Buffalo, and a quarterback coming off three straight three-touchdown, no interception outings.

    They were 8-3 overall and, more impressively, 8-1 when Tua Tagovailoa was dishing the football to playmakers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. With Tua an emerging MVP contender, brainy and quirky head coach Mike McDaniel was a leading candidate for Coach of the Year.

    Things were so good the offseason stench of tampering and allegations of tanking and discrimination disappeared from public senses, as if carried away by a cool ocean breeze. A month later, much in Miami has changed.

    Once blazing, the Dolphins are losers of four in a row. Tua is in concussion protocol for the second time since October, as Teddy Bridgewater preps to start Sunday in Foxborough. And McDaniel is exactly where fired predecessor Brian Flores was this time last year; entering the New Year with an 8-7 record. Only, in McDaniel’s case, he’s doing it with a pricier, more star-studded roster.

    Playoff prospects that recently burned bright are still aglow, but reduced to embers in December’s final days. Their aqua and orange light is dimmed by recent defeats, doubts over Tua’s future — near and long term — and defensive adjustments by opponents who’ve learned to take the ‘in-between’ out of Miami’s offense.

    No mistaking, the Fins are explosive. Namely Waddle and Hill, the league’s lone tandem of teammates to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards apiece.

    Waddle, whose 18.8 yards a reception lead the league, can catch a 10 1/2-yard crosser, flip his hips and accelerate from zero to 21.68 miles per hour (per NextGen Stats) in an 84-yard instant, as he did Sunday vs. Green Bay.

    Hill, the aptly nicknamed “Cheetah,” is capable of running through and past a secondary to wait on a long lob covering half a field to come his way. His 52-yard grab against the Packers was the seventh catch of 50-plus yards he and Waddle have combined to make in their 15 games together.

    They’ve also totaled 13 100-yard performances. Each had one on Christmas Day. Waddle’s five catches gained 143 yards. Hill’s four receptions netted 103 yards. That’s an average of 27.3 yards per completion to them, and a big reason Miami picked up 8.4 yards a play overall.

    The catch for the Fish, however, is that they did little else.

    During the final 32 minutes, the Dolphins lost a fumble, missed a field goal and gave up three interceptions. Twenty-two second-half plays amounted to 100 net yards and no points. Thus, they lost, 26-20.

    Miami’s recent slide began with a Week 13 defeat at San Francisco, where McDaniel dialed up a 75-yard TD pass from Tagovailoa to ex-49er Trent Sherfield on the first play from scrimmage. The quick lead didn’t last, as Nick Bosa added to his reputation as the likely defensive player of the year with three sacks and the legend of Brock Purdy, relieving an injured Jimmy Garoppolo, was born.

    Save for another long touchdown pass to Hill, Tua mostly struggled, playing 3,000 miles from home and facing one of the NFC’s best teams with one of the NFL’s most dominant defenses. A reality check, for sure. But hardly cause for season-altering concern.

    The following week in Los Angeles was another matter. At 6-6 going in, the Chargers were without a half dozen defensive starters, leading oddsmakers to make them a home underdog by more than a field goal.

    Instead of being passive, the Bolts got aggressive, employing press coverage on roughly a third of their defensive snaps.

    “When you let fast guys run down the field — with as fast as they are — and you let them run through zones with no one around, then it’s going to turn into a track meet,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley explained. “Guess what, you’re not as fast as they are. No one is. That’s why you see them do to people what they do because they’re really, really good. If you want a chance, you have to get closer to them.”

    The Chargers also dropped intermediate defenders deeper than usual into passing lanes. Typically, Tagovailoa is a ‘ball’s-out-immediately,’ anticipation thrower. He throws to where he anticipates his receivers will be and, as importantly, where defenders won’t be.

    But opposite LA, Tua’s timing with receivers was disrupted and spaces usually left open were filled by deploying defenders. The Dolphins ended the night with 17 points — seven from a flukey fumble return by the freakishly fast Hill — and just 219 total yards. On NBC, ex-Patriot great Rodney Harrison — albeit hyperbolically — called Staley’s defensive design “the game plan of the century.”

    The following Saturday at Buffalo, Miami bounced back with 29 points and pushed the Bills to the brink, mainly by running early on a cold, snowy night. The Dolphins rushed for 126 yards in the first half alone, including 108 yards from Raheem Mostert. Meanwhile, Tagovailoa had 101 passing yards at the break.

    In the second half, Miami ran the ball just 11 times, only three by Mostert. Conversely, Tua’s nine completions amassed 123 yards and included two touchdowns. Overall, the Fins finished with 217 yards passing and 188 yards rushing.

    But following a third-down incompletion, accompanied by a declined illegal shift, with roughly 6 minutes left in a 29-29 tie, Miami never got the ball again. Buffalo killed the clock and won the game on a last-second field goal by Tyler Bass.

    Four losses. Four very different types of games. Surrounded by four separate sets of circumstances.

  • Mostert

    Raheem Mostert surpassed 100 yards rushing in the first half alone in Miami’s recent loss at Buffalo. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

    So how do the Patriots, their own playoff aspirations still flickering with two games to go, try to defend the Dolphins? Can Matt Judon and/or Josh Uche wreak Bosa-like havoc? Do they try to replicate Staley’s masterplan? Is there much of anything to copy from the Buffalo and Green Bay games?

    Answers lie with New England’s chief defensive assistants, linebackers coaches Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo. Though neither is ready days in advance to let us know what specifics to expect, both make clear that the Pats will invest more original thought than simply imitating others while scheming for Sunday.

    “There’s the balance of putting together a game plan and doing certain things that may be new or different, and then just running your core stuff, your core defense,” says Belichick, who cautions against defending against Miami based on another team’s approach if it involves varying from Patriots’ strengths. 

    “We’re really not into imitating. We’re not a copy-cat type of organization or copy-cat type of scheme,” Mayo says. “What we do is we just try to see what are our strengths and what are some of the weaknesses on the other side of the ball. We try to exploit those the best we can. 

    “With that being said, it’s really not about what other teams have done in the past. It’s about what do we think we’re able to do. Obviously, every time you get into a game, they’re looking at us the same way. So you have to be able to adjust on the fly and that’s why in-game adjustments are so critical for us.”

    A complicating factor is the physical state of the Patriots’ cornerbacks. 

    They’ve gone a month without veteran starter Jalen Mills (groin injury) and the past two weeks without talented rookie Jack Jones (knee). Now first-year sensation Marcus Jones (concussion) is in jeopardy of missing the home finale. 

    None of the three practiced on Wednesday and Thursday. Their absence leaves starter Jonathan Jones, who’s playing through a chest injury, Myles Bryant and seldom-used Shaun Wade as remaining corners on the team’s 53-man roster. Candidates for call-up from the practice squad include Quandre Mosely and just-signed Tae Hayes.

  • Jon Jones

    While rookie namesakes Jack and Marcus Jones and fellow veteran Jalen Mills have been sidelined by injuries, Jonathan Jones is the lone starting cornerback practicing for Sunday’s visit by Miami. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

    Whoever the Pats wind up fielding in their secondary, Mayo stresses the importance of mixing coverages behind chaining fronts. It’s also imperative to avoid getting outnumbered wherever Miami winds up going with the ball.

    “The Dolphins do a good job staying balanced,” he says. “They make everything look the same. It’s very tough to really get a bead on what they’re trying to do (in) the building of formations, whether it’s pre-snap or post-snap. They do a good job of finding the way to get the ‘plus-one.’ We always talk about the plus-one, an extra player over there. That’s not even talking about the athletes on the field, the Waddles, the Hills. All those guys they bring a different dynamic to the game, so it’s a tough challenge for us.”

    As the Bills and Packers — in the first half at least — experienced, that challenge exists whether trying to slow down the Fins’ receivers or stop their running backs when McDaniel commits to the ground game.

    In November, Miami acquired Jeff Wilson who rushed for three scores in a 100-yard performance at Gillette Stadium in 2020. Though Mostert is much faster, Wilson, as a fellow ex-Niner, equally suits the scheme McDaniel brought from San Francisco.

    “With both of those backs, honestly, they do a great job,” Mayo said. “The blocking schemes are the blocking schemes. It’s really tough to get a bead on where they want to go with the ball. Like I said earlier, the way they’re able to build formations pre- and post-snap, it’s always going to be difficult to try to slow those guys down.”

    Bob Socci is in his 10th season calling play-by-play for the Patriots Radio Network on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.

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