When you think of the Miami Dolphins offense, it’s natural to gravitate to QB Ryan Tannehill, big money playmaker Mike Wallace, and another well-paid wideout in Brian Hartline. But judging from the way the Patriots viewed the Fins a season ago, Bill Belichick and his defensive staff appear to have put tight end/H Back Charles Clay at the top of their list.
Just prior to last year’s December meeting, Belichick was effusive in his praise of Clay, saying, “I think his playmaking ability and the explosiveness in his game as a receiver and as run-after-catch player are all pretty well documented, it's out there.”
So what did Belichick and the Pats do? They schemed to take Clay out of the game, taking turns using Aqib Talib, Devin McCourty and Jamie Collins to defend the swiss army knife. And for the most part they did. Clay was targeted just twice, making one catch. Of course, it was a big one, a 4th down conversion on the Fins game-winning 4th quarter drive.
Take a look at the 1st screen shot. That’s Clay split wide right, isolated on Logan Ryan.
Inside receiver kicks out Ryan on the bubble screen, but there’s still not enough space for Clay to get the first down, not with Dane Fletcher pursuing as the frontside LB and safety Steve Gregory with a prime angle. But that run-after-catch thing that Belichick praised Clay for comes into effect, and somehow, despite the way the screenshot below looks, Clay got past the sticks.
One might think it’s unusual to put a man Clay’s size at or outside the numbers, but not the Dolphins, at least not under their previous offensive coordinator Mike Sherman (who’s been replaced by Chip Kelly-ite Bill Lazor). Clay lined up all over the joint that Sunday; in fact, his first 7 plays of the game saw Clay in seven different spots on the field, and only one formation was a replication, just flipping hashes. A compilation…
So the first challenge for the Pats was to locate where Clay was, which they did an impressive job of. But despite the limited impact stats-wise, Clay still figured prominently on one of the Fins scoring plays. It came in the 2nd quarter, a 39-yard strike to Mike Wallace. The Pats singled up McCourty on Clay. Nothing wrong with that, you say, except for the fact that it took the Pats best free safety out of the picture, leaving Marquice Cole on the jam (which he failed at) and then Steve Gregory to close down a large gap (would have been McCourty more often than not). Fail all the way around, but again, look where Clay takes McCourty (and where would you rather your borderline All-Pro free safety? In the middle of the field? Or as a trailer?):
Look, bad job by Gregory and Cole, without question, but this is also about Clay’s impact and the concern the Pats had for him all game, as noted by new OC Lazor during his press availability in Miami Monday:
“Well, if they put 11 guys on him, we’ll have a hard time, that’s for sure (joking) . . . I have great confidence in his ability to get open, probably shown specifically by certain people trying to take him away because they know what he can do and they know that, if you have an average player on him, he’s probably going to get open. I’ve seen the film from last year. We know what plans have come against us. We know what’s worked against certain people. Hopefully, all of the time we’re spending in the meeting room, we’re doing the right things as far as how we plan against it. There’s no doubt about it, when certain guys are taken out by double coverage or for whatever reason, others have to step up and they understand that.”
So what will Belichick and his staff do this time around? With a maturing Tannehill at the quarterback spot, the challenge is steep, but perhaps we’ve seen a glimpse of what will happen Sunday, especially with regards to corners like Ryan, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington playing the other safety spot alongside McCourty, giving the Pats more cover guys in a league that is pass first, second and third. Clay’s a unique weapon and deserves the respect he got a season ago.
I suspect he’ll see more of those players - and McCourty - then he will of traditional safeties like Pat Chung and Duron Harmon. But as always, Belichick won’t let this one out of the bag, at least not until game day.