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Shorthanded Patriots secondary rises to the challenge against the Dolphins’ star receivers

Related: Patriots vs. Dolphins: New England prevails 23-21 to keep playoff hopes alive

The absence of starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa certainly helped, but the Miami Dolphins nonetheless entered their Week 17 game against the New England Patriots as a potentially potent team on the offensive side of the ball. They still featured a challenging scheme, after all, as well as two of the most productive pass catchers in football.

The Patriots, meanwhile, had to rely on recent free agency pickups at cornerback and a deep safety group to make ends meet in the secondary. They did their job, though, and played an important role in New England’s season-saving 23-21 victory on Sunday.

Along the way, the unit kept star wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle mostly in check. Hill caught four passes for 55 yards, with Waddle catching three for 52 — well below their per-game averages entering Week 17.

“Played really well as a group,” head coach Bill Belichick said about his team’s secondary after the game. “Our more experienced players back there — obviously [Jonathan Jones], Myles [Bryant] — really did a good job of not only stepping up but also helping Tae [Hayes] and [Quandre Mosely] with some of the communication back there.”

The Patriots entered Sunday’s game down three prominent members of their cornerback rotation. Nominal starter Jalen Mills and third-round rookie Marcus Jones were ruled out because of a groin injury and concussion, respectively; fourth-round rookie Jack Jones was placed on injured reserve the previous day because of a knee injury.

All three of them had been regularly used previously during the season, proving their value to the rotation and play-making ability. With them as well as emergency option Shaun Wade inactive, the Patriots relied on some experienced and new faces.

Jonathan Jones resumed his usual role on the perimeter, with Myles Bryant starting alongside him. Bryant would move into the slot in select packages, making way for recent pickups Tae Hayes and Quandre Mosely: Hayes was signed just this week, with Mosely having arrived via the practice squad in early December.

Additionally, New England relied on the quality of its deepest position group by playing plenty of three- and four-safety packages. That group — consisting of Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips and Jabrill Peppers — also played its part, and helped the Patriots keep one of the most explosive offenses in football to 21 points.

“Didn’t give up a lot of explosive plays, which they’ve had a lot of them, probably as many as anybody in the league,” Belichick said. “40-yard passes. They’ve had a bunch of them that have gone for 60 and 70. ...

“Those guys did a really good job. We didn’t really have a lot of coverage mistakes. They hit a few passes on us, of course, which they do against everybody — a couple pop passes and play-actions. Overall, a lot of balls went to the backs on check-downs and things like that. Those guys were hard to tackle, but at least we were able to keep the game under control that way. Anything is better than a 60-yard touchdown.”

For team captain Devin McCourty, the solid execution under difficult circumstances can directly be tied back to the team’s character.

“I don’t think we have the men in that locker room that have the character to quit,” McCourty said after what might have been his final game at Gillette Stadium.

“Each guy in that locker room all has a story of how they got here. We got a guy like Jon Jones, undrafted; Kyle Dugger, D-II guy; [Matthew] Judon, D-II guy — two of our best players on defense. That character, just that determination to be on top as individuals motivates this team to stick together and play together. We don’t want to go out there and not give it our all because of the guys next to us.”

The Patriots ability to integrate players into that setup on the fly has proven itself crucial this season. Whether it is offensive tackle Conor McDermott, who took over a starting role after getting signed off the New York Jets’ practice squad, or the aforementioned Hayes and Mosely, they joined the team in-season and with relatively short lead-up time were deemed ready to contribute.

The players’ leadership deserves credit for that, as was pointed out by all involved. The same also is true for the coaching staff, though.

“Thought our secondary did a good job, Mike [Pellegrino], Brian [Belichick], Steve [Belichick], Jerod [Mayo], all those guys,” Belichick said.

The result spoke for itself on Sunday. While Miami did still move the ball at times and had its opportunities, the defense came out on top. Making opportunistic plays sure helps with that — the unit had two interceptions, including a pick-six — as does playing a sound all-around game between the front and the backend of the defense.

“I thought our front played well, too,” Belichick said. “We handled a pretty good running game. We were competitive there. Then we got some pressure on the quarterback. A good team defensive effort.”