The third year safety dropped back into coverage on a 3rd-and-15 play, was able to get in position to pick off the pass attempt from Dolphins quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, and 39 yards later crossed the goal line for a touchdown. It was Dugger’s third defensive score of the season — the most in the NFL — and a play that set a pair of franchise records.
The Patriots defense has now set a new mark with seven total scores this year, including a record four games in a row. Most importantly, though, the play helped turn the tide for New England and set the team on the course to a 23-21 win.
“Just Cover 2, dropping as the middle player,” Dugger said about the play during his postgame press conference. “Got to my drop, saw my threat was eliminated, so I was able to get my eyes back to the quarterback and get around to the backside vertical. Once I got my hands on the ball, I knew I needed to score and help the team greatly. That is our goal. ...
“We knew there were probably going to be some vertical route concepts downfield. That had a lot to do with it. As far as making that play myself, you never really know when it’s going to be your time to do that. But I was in the right place at the right time.”
Dugger has been in the right place at the right time a lot this season. In Week 5 against Detroit, he recovered a fumble and took it back 59 yards for his first career touchdown. The following week he caught an interception versus Cleveland.
Fast forward to Week 14, and Dugger again being involved in a game-changing play. That day against the Arizona Cardinals, he forced a fumble that was returned for a score by teammate Raekwon McMillan. A week later, he undercut a screen pass by Las Vegas Raiders QB Derek Carr and ran it back 16 yards for another score.
Now, he added another takeaway to his career totals — and another TD.
“That was a great play,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. “It was a great run. The interception was a good play, a good catch, and all that, but he made a lot of yards on his own like Marcus [Jones] did last week — breaking tackles there at midfield or at the 4-yard line, whatever it was, cutting back.
“Kyle’s a very explosive, athletic player. Has done a great job for us jamming receivers, playing the run, tackling, making big plays. And when he gets his hands on the ball, he’s a hard guy to get. There’s not many guys out there that can catch him from behind on offense. ... He’s been involved in a lot of those big plays, and it’s obviously really helped us.”
Dugger’s ability to create big plays has not just helped the Patriots stay alive in the race for a wild card playoff berth, it also has him positioned as a potential cornerstone for the team’s defense for years to come. While the 2020 second-round draft choice out of Lenoir-Rhyne still has another year left on his rookie deal, he looks like a realistic candidate to get locked up long-term sooner rather than later.
With every play he makes, however, the asking price is going up — something linebacker Matthew Judon poked fun at on Sunday.
“I think you’re going to have to write Kyle a blank check. That’s how good he is, right there,” he said.
Unlike Judon, Dugger was not voted to the Pro Bowl this year. However, plays like his pick-six against Miami show that he is very much deserving of league-wide recognition; he has become one of the biggest defensive playmakers in football and a bona fide starting safety in the New England secondary.
He also has become something else, per Judon: a one-man band.
“Just for him to get that interception and then turn it into offense, that’s a one-man band,” he said. “It just seems like every week we come up with one. We have to keep doing it, have to keep focusing on it. That’s the goal. But for Kyle to do that, that’s a really unbelievable play.”