In order to do that, New England’s defense must contain superstar receiver Tyreek Hill, who joined the Dolphins via an offseason trade with the Kansas City Chiefs. History suggests the Patriots are more than capable of slowing down Hill. In fact, few, if any, NFL teams have done a better job defending the ultra-fast wideout.
But will any of that matter Sunday afternoon when Hill plays his first game for first-time head coach and offensive whiz-kid Mike McDaniel?
First, let’s look at how Hill did against New England when he was with Kansas City, playing for Andy Reid and catching passes from Patrick Mahomes.
His first game against the Patriots also was a season opener: a blowout victory for the Chiefs at Gillette Stadium in 2017. Hill caught eight passes for 133 yards and one touchdown, though it’s worth noting that Alex Smith was at quarterback for the Chiefs with then-rookie Mahomes holding a clipboard on the sideline. (Fun fact: Mike Gillislee actually led the Patriots in rushing that day and scored three touchdowns.) Roughly a year later, the Mahomes-Hill connection tore up New England with Hill amassing 12 catches for 142 yards and three scores in an eventual 43-40 victory for the Patriots. That game was a hoot.
Since then, Bill Belichick’s defenses have kept Hill in (relative) check.
Hill caught only one pass for 42 yards in New England’s iconic 2018 AFC Championship Game triumph at Arrowhead Stadium. You might recall videos of Patriots safety Devin McCourty letting Hill hear it as he and cornerback Jonathan Jones teamed up to stifle Mahomes’ most dangerous weapon.
Hill has faced the Patriots twice since that night, providing a pair of similar performances: an eight-catch, 62-yard outing in 2019 and six catches for 64 yards and one score in 2020. The Chiefs won both games. However, New England definitely got screwed by the officials on a should’ve-been N’Keal Harry TD in the first game.
The Patriots have evolved their strategy against Hill over the years. Despite the success of the McCourty-Jones double-team in the AFC title game, New England largely trusted Jones to cover Hill 1-on-1 in the two ensuing matchups. And Jones, a slot corner for much of his career but now in line to start on the outside, was up to the task.
Patriots film buff Tayler Kyles recently did a great job of breaking down recent matchups between Hill and Jones.
So what, if anything, doe this mean for Sunday’s game? How do the Patriots balance game-planning for Hill and his well-known skill set with preparing to defend him within the context of facing McDaniel? While perhaps not a carbon copy of what he ran as San Francisco’s offensive coordinator in 2021, the 39-year-old McDaniel nevertheless is implementing an offensive scheme similar to the one he and Kyle Shanahan popularized with the 49ers.
“Yeah, it’s definitely different,” Patriots safeties coach Brian Belichick said during a Monday morning Zoom call. “Again, first game of the season, we don’t know exactly what we’re gonna see out there. We can try to get background from (McDaniel’s) system in the past, but it’s hard to figure out exactly how they’re gonna use players, and what they’re gonna call, and all that.
“We know what Hill’s skillset is. Like you said, we’ve seen him plenty of times in the past. So, we know what he can do. Obviously, he does a lot of things exceptionally well. So, we know he’ll be utilized in the offense and it’s our job to figure out how to stop him.”
The Shanahan/McDaniel scheme relies heavily on zone blocking, stretch runs, play-action passes and naked bootlegs. And clues for how McDaniel will use Hill might be found in what the 49ers have done with dynamic swiss-army-knife “wide back” Deebo Samuel.
After the Dolphins acquired Hill, McDaniel indicated he could craft a role similar to the one that San Fran gave Samuel, who last season compiled 1,405 receiving yards and 365 rushing yards to go along with 14 all-purpose touchdowns.
“From a starting point, both players are exceptional with the ball in their hands,” McDaniel said in March, via Hal Habib of the Palm Beach Post. “So, your starting point in terms of where you’re trying to accentuate people’s skill sets, that is a commonality.
” … As far as exact ways we’ll use Tyreek Hill relative to the way Deebo Samuel was used in San Francisco, there’s probably going to be some overlap to some degree on San Francisco.”
The Patriots only have gone up against Samuel once, and it came in 2020 when the 2019 second-round pick hadn’t yet blossomed into a game-breaking force and McDaniel still was San Fran’s run-game coordinator. Samuel caught only five passes for 65 yards while turning three rushes into 7 yards, though the 49ers mostly ran the ball after building a big lead and Samuel suffered a hamstring injury early in the fourth quarter.
However, the 49ers’ first drive might be worth keeping in mind when Hill takes the field Sunday. On its fifth play, San Fran put Samuel in motion, eventually snapping the ball as he ran behind the center. Jimmy Garoppolo ran an RPO, faking a handoff to running back Jeff Wilson before throwing toward the left flat for Samuel, who caught the pass and scampered for 23 yards. The 49ers ran a near-identical play three plays later, only to the right side and without the RPO element. Samuel took a catch-and-run for 13 yards.
You can watch both plays within the first minute of this video.
Again, Samuel and Hill aren’t the same players. Samuel certainly is more versatile, and Hill is more of a true downfield threat. Still, there are clear similarities and McDaniel himself said there will be “overlap”.
As for how the Patriots choose to defend Hill, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens in Miami. Will they again trust the 28-year-old Jones to cover the Hill (also 28) by himself? Or, with Jones coming off a season-ending shoulder injury and its overall talent at cornerback reduced, will New England go back to double-teaming?
Hill covered all the bases and probably got closest to the truth while speaking with reporters on Monday.
“Coach Belichick, obviously, he?s one of the greatest coaches in this great game that we got,” Hill said, via David Furones of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “The way that he thinks is just next level. I would be honored to be singled out, but I just feel like, when we play them, there are some plays that I do get doubled when I was with the Chiefs. But who knows? I don’t know what to expect going to a new team, different system. Who knows what to expect?
“I’m sure Coach Bill has a plan up his sleeve, but I feel like our coach has one up his, too.”
The Patriots and the Dolphins will kick off at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday.