Sunday’s Dolphins game against the Arizona Cardinals will be a game of matchups. Larry Fitzgerald against Miami’s nickel cornerback, which is a Miami nightmare. Miami’s high-paid defensive line against a beat up and inconsistent Arizona offensive line, which is Arizona’s nightmare. And, oh yeah, Arizona special teams ace Justin Bethel versus Miami special teams ace Michael Thomas.
A perennial Pro Bowl special teams player against a special teams player playing at a Pro Bowl level.
Thomas is eager to get to this matchup because he wants to see how he fares against one of the best special teams players in the NFL, a player who’s been to three consecutive Pro Bowls for the NFC as a special teams player.
“For sure,” Thomas said this week. “Everybody wants to be the best. You play the game for the respect of your peers, your teammates, guys around the league. So I definitely pay attention to the guys around the league. I see a guy like [New England’s] Matt Slater, he’s played at a Pro Bowl level these past four or five years, and of the guys around the league, he’s been one of the top guys.
“So I say, ‘OK, I want to play at a high level like he does. I want people to talk about me the way they talk about him year in and year out, as a special teams ace for the Miami Dolphins.’ So I look at him, I look at the guy we’re about to play, Justin Bethel, who’s been in the Pro Bowl every single year since I’ve been in the league. I have a great opportunity to play against him this weekend and see: That’s a Pro Bowl type player, so how do I stack up against him.”
So far this season Thomas has been comparing quite well against every other special teams player regardless of conference.
He shares the NFL lead in special teams tackles with teammate Mike Hull. Both have 15 tackles. Thomas has 12 solos and three assists. Hull has nine solos and six assists. That puts Thomas in the Pro Bowl conversation with Bethel, who has nine tackles, a blocked kick and a forced fumble, and other special teams aces around the league.
Of course, the Dolphins are a little biased about their guy. So Dolphins special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi will tell you Thomas deserves the peer and fan recognition that is a Pro Bowl vote.
“I would say he is,” Rizzi said when asked if Thomas is playing at a Pro Bowl level. “I think the level that he has played at -- Michael Thomas has played at this year -- has been consistent through 12 games. Again, not a surprise to me only because he’s played like that for the last few years. Not only does he provide leadership in the building, but just the way he goes out there and plays.
“If you just watch the film and look at this guy and the way he plays in all the four phases that we ask him to play, he plays well in all of them. I think one of the things that goes unnoticed sometimes is special teams guys in the return game is he’s a good blocker. I think everybody kind of just makes notes on who makes the tackles, and he certainly does a good job doing that in coverage, but here’s a guy that is also a really good blocker.
“I’m sure I said last week I’m biased, but through all of the special teams film I watch, I wouldn’t trade him out for anybody.”
Rizzi, by the way, also is eager to see how his ace does against Bethel because he’s a coach and coaches often think about matchups -- just like Rizzi thinks about matchups against Matthew Slater whenever the Dolphins play the Patriots and their Pro Bowl special teams ace.
“I think when we match up against him, as I mentioned to you last week about what Slater said to me every time we play those guys, but it’s hard. I know there are ... I think there’s two slots for that position,” Rizzi said. “You know what? I think Mike Thomas has gotten to a point where maybe the two years prior to this, people kind of were like, ‘Who’s that 31?’
“But I think by now, people kind of know him. I think when people play us, you can watch how people attack us and game plan against us. They kind of know where he’s going to be on the field, and that’s why we try to move him around a little bit and put him in different spots to try to combat that. I think by now, when people play the Dolphins, they kind of know who 31 is and know where he’s at. I think he’s kind of made a name for himself by now.”
The casual NFL fan may start to think that special teams and special teams aces and special teams Pro Bowl players are so much hooey. They’re ball watchers so let’s talk about the quarterback!
But those special teams guys win games.
One of the things Thomas has worked on extensively to improve is his blocking. As a four-core player -- kickoff, kickoff return, punt and punt return -- he has to tackle and make sure the Dolphins aren’t on the sad-face end of a big punt or kickoff return.
But he also has to throw his body around for Jakeem Grant and Kenyan Drake so the Dolphins return team does good work. And this is where I remind you the Dolphins won a game this year when Drake returned a kickoff for a TD. And they had a punt return for a TD.
And Thomas threw key blocks on both of those to help get those scores.
So the results are tangible.
“People know about the tackles. That’s easy to see,” Thomas said. “A guy gets to the ball and takes a guy down. But for me, definitely my blocking when it comes to kickoff return ... that was my weakest link in my game,. But I definitely feel like I’ve improved that because I worked in the offseason with coach Rizz. I took it personally to try to get better at that phase. I wanted to build up my biggest weakness of my game.
“I’ve improved and I’ve tried to bring other guys along. We’re all just trying to continue to help this team.”
Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero