How Patriots’ Undermanned Defense Shut Down Dolphins, Saved Season

'We just went with our best 11'


Jan 2, 2023

FOXBORO, Mass. — It should have been a matchup nightmare for the New England Patriots.

The Miami Dolphins boast two of the NFL’s best and fastest wide receivers in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, and the Patriots were preparing to face them without not one, not two, but three of their top cornerbacks.

Hill and Waddle are a chore for even full-strength secondaries to deal with. They entered Week 17 ranked second and sixth in the NFL in receiving yards, respectively, and first and ninth in Pro Football Focus grade.

The Dolphins would be without concussed starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, which helped, but Miami’s wideouts had combined for 306 receiving yards earlier this season in a game that Tagovailoa missed. How would the Patriots be able to stop them with Jalen Mills, Jack Jones and Marcus Jones all unavailable?

The answer: by playing one of their few healthy corners at an unfamiliar position, giving meaningful snaps to a pair of recent practice squadders and taking full advantage of a safety group that might be the NFL’s deepest.

Despite their rash of back-end injuries, the Patriots’ defense largely limited Miami’s elite receiving duo in a 23-21 victory at Gillette Stadium, holding Hill and Waddle to a modest seven catches on 12 targets for 107 yards between them. They also notched two interceptions, including one that safety Kyle Dugger returned for New England’s franchise-record-setting seventh defensive touchdown of the season.

“They really played well as a group,” head coach Bill Belichick said of the Patriots’ patchwork defensive backfield.

With Mills (groin), Jack Jones (knee) and Marcus Jones (concussion) inactive due to injury and Shaun Wade sitting as a healthy scratch, the Patriots deployed Jonathan Jones and Myles Bryant as their starting outside cornerbacks, with Tae Hayes and Quandre Mosely backing them up.

Jonathan Jones has played as a perimeter corner all season, but Bryant had little prior experience in that role, with most of his Patriots snaps coming in the slot or at safety.

“It’s a new spot, new position I really haven’t played much around here,” Bryant said after the game. “But it’s exciting. I just pay attention to the coaching points those guys — Jonathan Jones, Mills, Marcus, Jack — all the corrections that they get. I just pay attention to that, and then when it’s my turn, I’m able to go out there and execute.”

Bryant played as an outside cornerback in “four or five games” during his college career at Washington but never did so consistently.

“Not a ton,” the third-year pro said. “It was a situation like this — guys banged up and I was able to fill in.”

Bryant played every defensive snap for the first time in his NFL career, with Jones, who was listed as questionable for the game, gutting through a chest injury to play 61 of 71 (86%). The latter provided the Patriots’ other interception, toe-tapping along the sideline after Hill bobbled a pass from third-string quarterback Skylar Thompson.

“Guys stepped up,” Jones said. “With a team like this late in the season, you need guys to step up, and we were able to go handle business.”

When the Patriots sent out their traditional three-cornerback nickel package, Hayes would take over one of the outside spots and bump Bryant back into his usual slot alignment. Who is Hayes? He’s a brand-new member of the Patriots’ secondary, having just signed to the practice squad last Tuesday and been promoted to the 53-man roster on Saturday.

New England had a bit of familiarity with the 25-year-old’s skill set from seeing him in joint practices with the Carolina Panthers over the summer — and watching him return a Bailey Zappe interception 50 yards for a touchdown in the preseason — and just five days after arriving in Foxboro, he was able to play 24 snaps against Miami, with many of those coming on third down or in the red zone.

“The big thing was he was available,” Belichick said of Hayes, who’s now appeared in games for five NFL teams. “That’s the big thing. There are a lot of players that maybe could have filled that role, they just weren’t available. But he was, so that was fortunate for us. He came in and picked things up pretty quickly.”

Mosely, who was temporarily elevated from the P-squad, played one snap in his NFL debut. Given the state of their cornerback group, the Patriots chose to give smaller roles to the depth players there and lean more on their squadron of talented, versatile, experienced safeties.

Devin McCourty, Dugger, Adrian Phillips and Jabrill Peppers all played at least 45 defensive snaps in the win, with the Patriots often putting all four of them on the field together. It was a showcase performance by a position group that Belichick called the team’s best before the season.

“You’ve got the OG in Dev who’s been doing it for 13 years and is able to go out there and make plays,” Phillips told “Then you’ve got the young guy Dug that’s freakishly athletic and smart as heck that’s able to go out there and thump. Then you’ve got somebody like Pep who’s a missle, and then you’ve got somebody like me that’s able to kind of fill in all those spots and be able to make plays.

“I think (Sunday) showcased it, but I think we had to showcase it because we were down in our corner count. So we just went with our best 11, and at times, they felt like the best 11 was the four safeties, so we made it work. We’re all unselfish, and we all want to make a play, but we don’t care who makes it. We just go out there and do the best that we can.”

The Patriots’ overarching defensive game plan was to play mostly zone coverage, limit big-play opportunities down the field, force Teddy Bridgewater (and later Thompson, who entered after Bridgewater broke his finger on Dugger’s pick-six) to settle for checkdowns and short passes, and then swarm to the ball-carrier. Eleven of Miami’s 24 completions went to running backs Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr.

The Patriots also bottled up the Dolphins’ run game (3.2 yards per carry) and were able to speed up Miami’s reserve QBs with their pass rush.

“Keep everything in front of you,” Peppers said. “Be physical with their receivers and come up and make the tackles. And I think we did our job.”

“I think when you turn on Miami’s film,” Bryant added, “you see those guys (Hill and Waddle) and how well they’re able to run through defenses. You see teams trying to play man, trying to play tighter, and they end up getting ran by. So against that offense, you’ve got to try to just make them get down the field bit by bit. Make them get impatient, just try to make them throw the ball downfield and make them pay. We were able to get two picks off of them, and those ended up being big for our team.”

Hill’s four receptions were tied for his second-lowest total of the season, and his 55 receiving yards were his fourth-lowest. Waddle finished with three catches for 52 yards, 30 yards below his season average. The Dolphins lead the NFL in pass plays of 40-plus yards this season, but they had none longer than 25 on Sunday and just three longer than 20.

“I think if you can get the ball out of Tyreek and Jaylen’s hands, that’s probably better,” Belichick said. “Whoever else catches is probably, generally speaking, better for us than when they catch it. … I just thought they did a good job of just the awareness of those guys.”

The Patriots also were able to maintain their rare knack for creating defensive touchdowns despite lacking some of their top defensive playmakers. They’ve now scored one in four consecutive games, becoming the first NFL team to do that since the Super Bowl-winning 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“I ain’t never been a part of nothing like this before,” said Peppers, who’s provided bone-rattling physicality in his first season in New England.

Dugger’s score was vital, as it came amid a stretch of seven consecutive Patriots possessions that featured just four total first downs. The Patriots’ offense eventually awoke late, with Mac Jones and Jakobi Meyers keying what proved to be a game-winning fourth-quarter touchdown drive.

New England will be hoping to get some of its banged-up DBs back ahead of Sunday’s Week 18 showdown against Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs and the high-powered Bills. The Patriots, who staved off elimination with their win over the Dolphins, would clinch a playoff spot with victory in Buffalo, or with a defeat coupled with losses by Miami, Tennessee and Pittsburgh.

Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images
New England Patriots saftey Jabril peppers and linebacker Matthew Judon
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