Koa Misi will get his first regular-season crack at middle linebacker Sunday, and the three-hour lap around the deep end will be instructive.
A healthy and again dangerous Rob Gronkowski should expose any flaws that exist in Misi’s game.
But if Misi is anywhere near as effective in coverage as he is at shooing away reporters’ questions, Gronk could be in for a long afternoon.
Misi was characteristically cagey Wednesday when pressed on the matchup with perhaps the league’s premier tight end. Even the most basic questions had no chance of being answered.
For example: What are the benefits of using a linebacker on Gronkowski as opposed to a safety, and vice versa?
“I don’t know,” Misi said, but only after a pregnant pause. “Whatever defense our coach calls, we’re going to play. Our defense is headed by a great defensive coordinator.”
When asked why the Dolphins had such success against the burly pass catcher last year — Gronkowski had just two receptions for 27 yards in his only meeting with Miami — Misi simply chuckled before changing the subject.
So yes, it’s Patriots Week, when Dolphins players and coaches are more guarded with information than the NSA.
But despite the Dolphins’ best interests to cruise below radar detection, there’s no avoiding the most compelling matchup of the week. Gronkowski is finally game-ready after a series of significant injuries, the most recent a torn ACL in December.
He didn’t appear in the preseason, but Gronkowski promised he would play in Sunday’s opener in Miami. How much he’ll play, however, remains unclear. Some in the Dolphins organization think the Patriots will pick their spots with Gronkowski.
If he is on a snap count, it makes the most sense to use him where he is the most effective: the red zone. Gronkowski is remarkably productive there, catching 42 touchdown passes in 50 career games.
The Dolphins have had better success than most. In six meetings, Gronkowski has totaled just 24 catches for 339 yards and three touchdowns. He has gone over 100 yards only once.
“We dialed up some things, kept some people over the top of him,” safety Jimmy Wilson said of the 2013 meeting. “You can’t really stop offenses with good quarterbacks like [Tom Brady], because they put the ball in spots where you can’t make plays on it. Especially when you’ve got a guy like Gronkowski, a big, giant, Pro Bowl-caliber type tight end.”
Wilson continued: “It’s got to be catch-and-tackle, catch-and-tackle. You can’t be catch-and-missed the tackle. He stiff-arms a guy, now he’s running 60 yards downfield.”
The last thing Wilson wants to see, he added, is a “Gronk Spike” in the end zone — the player’s trademark touchdown celebration.
Wilson might have a lot to say about that. As a safety, he’s the last line of defense. He formally replaces Reshad Jones in the starting lineup Sunday. Both Jones and defensive end Dion Jordan are suspended for the first four games of the season. Both took turns covering Gronkowski in 2013.
The Dolphins are expected to employ another by-committee approach this time around. Wilson, Misi, Louis Delmas and Dannell Ellerbe all could get a crack at him.
Philip Wheeler also drew Gronkowski in coverage last year, but if tackling is the top priority, as Wilson mentioned, the Dolphins might do well to use someone else. His entire right hand was in a black cast Wednesday; he is dealing with a thumb injury.
“Certainly, that is a day-to-day thing,” coach Joe Philbin said. “Certainly, we want to get him out there [Wednesday] and get him used to it. We’ll check with the medical staff first and foremost to see how he’s responding. We’ll take it a day at a time. … I thought he really made improvements, but we’ll see.”
Referring to Gronkowski, Delmas said: “He’s a hell of a receiver, hell of a blocker and a hell of a tight end. We’re not going to allow him to get free release or anything like that. We’re definitely going to pick our matchups against him and try to dominate.”