The last time Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke held a press conference, he was asked — once again — about what it’s going to take to slow down opposing tight ends.
Only the Oakland Raiders allowed more receiving yards to tight ends and only the New York Giants allowed more touchdowns to opposing tight ends this season, according to Pro Football Reference.
Something must change.
For the second half of this season, safety T.J. McDonald — ramping up from a half-season suspension — was most often asked to play centerfield, while Pro Bowl safety Reshad Jones played closer to the line of scrimmage.
Using McDonald more often in a hybrid safety-linebacker role in 2018 could be considered.
“It could be,” Burke said. “(McDonald) has obviously got a skillset that fits like that type of role. Obviously, he’s a bigger safety. Again, the issue you get into is if you have small safeties and you put them down and maybe they’re too small in the run game or if you have linebackers that can’t run with tight ends, that’s just sort of the contrast. He definitely has a skillset that we feel like we can utilize.”
In 2016, McDonald played for the Rams, who fell to the Falcons in a playoff game on Saturday. In that game, you may have noticed McDonald’s former teammate, Mark Barron, playing linebacker.
Barron was a highly-drafted safety from Alabama, but has made a successful conversion.
You may also have noticed Falcons linebacker Deion Jones, a former LSU standout. Jones is a classic example of what NFL defensive coordinators now crave — a player who is physical enough to stop the run but also athletic enough to cover pass receivers.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn utilizes Jones in various roles, depending on down and distance. It’s something Burke wasn’t able to get to often enough with McDonald last season, in large part because of injuries to safeties Nate Allen, Michael Thomas and Mo Smith.
In particular, Smith is a player to watch in 2018, as the organization has relatively high hopes for the former undrafted rookie from Alabama and Georgia. (Think he’ll be watching Monday night’s national championship game?)
“We’re a little thin at safety position right now to be honest with you,” Burke said before the season finale. “I try to work some different things. It has been… Again, it’s always a big picture in terms of how you’re utilizing the roster. Again, if you try to move T.J. down into the box or wherever, you’ve got to put somebody else in. As I always say, if you’re taking somebody off the field, you’ve got to put somebody in. We haven’t necessarily had the matchups to be able to do some of those things.”
In the last game, Burke tried to use safety/cornerback Walt Aikens in a unique role. Burke has shown a desire to be creative, if he believes in the depth of personnel at a position as well as in the matchups he can create.
McDonald is excited about the prospect of playing an entire season alongside Jones. And even though he made many of his most eye-opening plays when featured near the line in 2017, he is open to any role.
“Whatever they ask me to do, I can do,” McDonald said last week, on pack up day in Davie. “I definitely feel with the skill sets that we have that we can do multiple things and you know it can be difficult for offenses to pick up on exactly what we’re going. So I’m excited about that.”
On the surface, it seems Jones and McDonald have some of the same skill sets, in terms of ability to make explosive plays near the line of scrimmage as well as creating game-changing plays with big hits and forced turnovers.
McDonald said he’ll be in a player place mentally when next season begins.
“It was different, ” McDonald said of this season. “That’s how I would describe it. I wouldn’t have a situation like how I had this year. Playing half the season. I’m excited to come back and hit the ground running. Better. And with a clear head.”
McDonald said starting fast will be a key for he and Jones next season.
“Being able to establish our identity as a safety combination,” McDonald said. “And just starting fast. Being physical. Going and get the rock. Being able to be the anchors on the back end.”
Burke concedes he was searching this season for the best players to match up with tight ends (and running backs and running quarterbacks and slot receivers). As the league has moved toward more spread offenses, it creates unique matchup issues for defensive coordinators.
“I think that’s sort of a task for us is finding similar hybrid defenders that can do those type of things, whether it’s safeties of linebackers, that we feel can cover those guys,”Burke said. “I think that’s just sort of an ongoing movement.”