With Tua Tagovailoa in concussion protocol, the Miami Dolphins are facing some major questions at quarterback heading into Week 17. Regardless of who is getting the start at the most important position on the field — Tagovailoa, Teddy Bridgewater or Skylar Thompson — they can rely on one of the best receiving corps in the NFL.
Miami has talent across the board, but the two players that stand out are Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. The duo has combined to catch 180 passes for 2,892 yards and 15 touchdowns this season — accounting for more than half of the team’s aerial production this season.
What makes them so productive is not just their connection with Tagovailoa and usage in Mike McDaniels’ offense, but also their raw athletic ability: Hill and Waddle are as fast as any wide receivers in the NFL.
“They have a lot of speed on their offense,” said New England Patriots co-linebackers coach Steve Belichick this week. “Definitely challenging. They do a lot of different things — very explosive, a lot of big plays. So, we have our hands full just like we do most weeks. Trying to come up with a good game plan and be ready to go this week.”
So, how do the Patriots plan to counter Miami’s speed? It all starts with physicality.
“Try to be hands-on,” said cornerback Jonathan Jones. “You try not to get beat deep. They get a lot of yards quickly and they do a good job of catching run plays — getting the ball to them quickly, underneath, and allow them to use their speed.
“Just being prepared for all three levels of routes. Not every play is deep passes; they’ll get them in space. Everything is not vertical speed; they run them across the field fast and just run them through zones trying to separate the defense. They do a good job of that. So, you just try to get your hands to slow them down, rerouting, and being physical with them.”
The Patriots used a similar approach in their first game against Miami back in Week 1. While they ultimately came up short 20-7, the final score was largely the result of the offense giving up one touchdown and generally not finding its groove. The defensive strategy, meanwhile, worked reasonably well.
Make no mistake, the two star receivers still won their battles: Hill caught eight passes for 94 yards, Waddle had four for 69 and a score. However, those numbers are below their year-long averages — and that was with Tagovailoa throwing them the football.
In order to keep the offense in check, however, New England’s defense has to do more than just counter the wideouts’ speed with physicality.
“Anytime you play teams that have that much speed on the field, you try to be physical with them. That’s one thing, and then we also have some fast guys on our team as well,” said co-linebackers coach Jerod Mayo. “It’s just mixing things up — a combination of different coverages, a combination of different fronts. That’s always been our thing, we’re a game-plan defense. So, we’ll have to see what happens.”
The Patriots successfully keeping Hill and Waddle in check would go a long way toward playing winning football on the defensive side of the ball. Whether or not the offense can follow suit this time around remains to be seen, but: a good defense can be the best offense after all.