MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Throughout the Dolphins’ injury waves of 2022 and ’23, there’s been one major constant — wide receiver Tyreek Hill. He’s one of the few players, and definitely the best player, to play in all 25 games of the Mike McDaniel era.
That streak seems likely to grow to 26 games Sunday.
But even if Hill plays against New England on Sunday, Patriots coach Bill Belichick could strategically take Hill out of the game.
And then what?
Well, let’s back up a bit.
Although it appeared there was a chance the electrifying Hill would miss the New England game on Sunday with a hip injury (he didn’t practice Wednesday), those fears were eased a great deal Thursday when Hill practiced on a limited basis and then declared himself ready for Sunday’s game.
“I just wanted some attention because my mom wouldn’t talk to me yesterday so I needed some attention from somebody,” said Hill, who always jokes around with the media.
So you’re good to go?
“Yeah, baby; I’m good, baby,” he replied.
So there you go. Tyreek says he’s playing Sunday.
But things could still get interesting for the first-place Dolphins and their juggernaut offense.
Hill, of course, leads the NFL with 902 yards receiving and is on pace for an NFL-record 2,000-plus yards this season. He’s a huge part of the NFL’s highest-scoring offense.
However, Belichick virtually erased Hill when these teams met in Week 2. Hill was limited to five receptions for 40 yards. The 40 yards are a season low, and the five receptions are Hill’s second-lowest total of the season (behind five vs. Buffalo).
Although Tagovailoa started that New England game earlier this year, it was Miami’s third-lowest point total of the season, 10.3 points fewer than its season average of 34.3 points per game.
Hill’s production, or lack of production, played a big role in Miami’s point total. Belichick’s gameplan is a big reason for Hill’s low production.
When these teams met in Week 2, the Patriots double-covered Hill in the first half, and then used rookie cornerback Christian Gonzalez to shadow Hill in the second half. They played a rarely-seen three-deep safety look pretty much the entire game. Dolphins players tell me no team has shadowed Hill as much as the Patriots did that day. They said almost every team shadows Hill in specific situations (third down, etc…), but no team has shadowed Hill for an entire half and combined that with the three-deep-safety look.
In fact, Gonzalez had an interception in the third quarter on a Tagovailoa pass intended for Hill.
Hill said he’ll be better this time around, especially against the double teams.
“What I’ve got to do better this time is actually just see it faster, process it faster and just get to my landmark,” he said. “Our quarterback has been doing a tremendous job of delivering passes to me and other guys and my job is to be there for him so that’s what I’ve got to do.
“I can’t make excuses about getting doubled. My job is to get open. If I want to say I’m the best, I’ve got to get open when there’s two guys on me.”
Dolphins players say the one certainty is that Belichick won’t defend Hill on Sunday the same way they defended him earlier this year. They said Belichick doesn’t repeat strategies in that fashion.
But Belichick will almost certainly do something a bit unconventional. He surely knows Hill’s three lowest-yardage receiving games this season have been the Dolphins’ three lowest-scoring games this season (New England, Buffalo and Philadelphia). And he can draw on the experience of holding Hill to 55 yards on four receptions in a 23-21 Patriots victory on Jan. 1 of this year.
On top of all that, wide receiver Jaylen Waddle is battling a back injury and might be less than 100%.
If Hill is slowed by double teams, and with Waddle (back) presumably slowed a bit, the Dolphins might rely more heavily on wide receivers Braxton Berrios, Cedrick Wilson Jr., Robbie Chosen and Chase Claypool to fuel their pass game. There’s also a chance they could activate River Cracraft, the best blocker in the group.
It’s interesting to note Miami tight ends have only been targeted once in the past three games. Running backs have 39 of Miami’s 165 receptions (24%), so they could get even more involved in the pass game.
Of course, there’s another defensive road Belichick could take.
He could decide to play an eight-man front to put a chokehold on Miami’s run game. No one has dared to consistently play an eight-man front to stop Miami’s league-leading running game because they’re too afraid of not being able to double cover Hill, and worse, the Hill-Waddle duo, on the back end.
This is where Miami’s run game would become crucial both for big plays and workmanlike plays. But it’s doubtful the Patriots employ the eight-man front because it leaves them exposed in the pass game.
Having said all of that, if Hill plays against New England, the Dolphins are pretty much golden. They should win.
If Hill doesn’t play, however, or if Belichick is successful at reducing Hill’s role, Miami’s offense is vulnerable and will likely have to work much harder for lesser results.