DAVIE — Dolphins special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi has a list and checks it twice every week. He knows nearly all the items on that list will come up about once a decade, but he also knows that failure to check it can make the Dolphins look stupid.
Michael Thomas made the Dolphins look smart Monday night, smothering New England’s unusual onside kick attempt with 57 seconds left. Stephen Gostkowski took the kick without a tee, sending a dribbler that forced Thomas to quickly ascertain whether the ball was going to travel the requisite 10 yards.
If it didn’t, Miami would have automatically gotten the ball and it would be game over.
If it did, it was anyone’s ball for the taking.
“What New England did was they tried to make it look very nonchalant, like they were they just standing around, hanging out and I think they tried to catch us off guard a little bit,” Rizzi said, meaning the Patriots were hoping the Dolphins wouldn’t know something was up simply because there was no tee. “Our guys were on top of it. The one thing is, New England’s done a bunch of different — I don’t want to use the word oddball — but abnormal onsides kicks over the years.”
It didn’t surprise Rizzi that Thomas made the correct decision, giving the Dolphins the ball on the Patriots’ 44 and icing a 27-20 victory.
Thomas explained his thinking on the play: “You just know when you’ve got all those guys bunched up, OK, they’re probably trying to bunt the ball. So the fact that he kicked that slow roller and I saw it coming, I’m not trying to wait and see if it goes 10 yards. Once it passes 5-6 yards and I know that that kickoff team is running at me, I’m not going to wait for them to try to block me. I’m just trying to get on it if I can. It had enough heat, so I thought that was the right decision, just to go ahead and secure it because I knew I could.”
Thomas said he and Anthony Fasano, another member of the “hands” team, have an understanding about who blocks for whom and who recovers the ball based on where it’s headed. Thomas believes the ball would have made it 10 yards “eventually.”
Keep in mind, Thomas was playing despite not practicing all week because of an injury to his posterior cruciate ligament suffered against Oakland. He was wearing a brace for the first time that did not slow him down, but actually made the knee comfortable enough to allow him to run fast again. Thomas said the injury should not require surgery but he did not practice again Thursday and plans to take it day by day this week as well.
His smart play against the Patriots is one more reason Thomas is the Dolphins’ special teams captain.
“Another solid season,” Rizzi said. “I think the one thing that gets lost since 2014 is that Mike Thomas leads the NFL in special teams tackles. This season is no different. He’s our leading tackler right now on special teams. I think a lot of times he may not make those flash plays, those plays that are noticed to the average fan, but he does a lot of grunt work, a lot of dirty work.”
So is this finally the year Thomas makes the Pro Bowl? He’d have to beat out perennial special teams pick Matt Slater of the Patriots.
“I’m not going to get my hopes up like last year,” Thomas said. “I really wanted it. I thought that leading the league in tackles and being a force constantly on the field on special teams, I thought last year was going to be the year, and I was the second alternate. I wasn’t even the first alternate.”
Thomas said “after every game you get players coming up to me, telling me they respect me,” which is good enough for him.
Maybe not for Rizzi, though.
“I’m certainly a guy that’s thought he’s played well enough to make the Pro Bowl the last few years,” Rizzi said. “You can never predict the voting. We know how that goes. I certainly would, he’s got my vote.”
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