After DB coach 'cursed us out bad,' Packers pick off Tua Tagovailoa three times to seal win
MIAMI GARDENS, Florida − There was a mild disagreement in the Green Bay Packers secondary before the final snap. For a brief moment, their veteran cornerback and rookie inside linebacker stood beside each other on the field, debating what was about to happen.
Rasul Douglas turned to Quay Walker and told him to be ready. On second down with 1 minute, 34 seconds left, the Miami Dolphins were 69 yards from morphing into the Grinch that stole Christmas. They needed a touchdown to ruin the new year, ending this absurd idea a Packers team that lost five straight games midway through the season could make a postseason run. Douglas told his rookie linebacker to watch the football. It was coming to him, he said.
“I told him right after that,” Walker replayed in the visitors locker room at Hard Rock Stadium, “vice versa. That’s the only thing I said. I just told those two words to him. He started smiling.”
BOX SCORE:Packers 26, Dolphins 20
By then, the Packers secondary had unriddled how to stop the Dolphins explosive offense. They’d held Miami scoreless since the 4-minute mark in the second quarter, squeezing speedsters Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle in a box with two deep safeties. Tua Tagovailoa, the Dolphins star who entered Sunday with the NFL’s highest passer rating, had morphed into Santa Claus. He spent Sunday’s fourth quarter handing out interceptions like presents.
The Packers had picked off Tagovailoa each of the previous two drives. A third straight would end the game.
Douglas baited the quarterback after the snap, squatting on an underneath route against Hill. At the last moment, he leaked up the right sideline. Tight end Mike Gesicki was running a fade route, similar to his 24-yard catch to convert a first-and-20 in the opening half.
This time, Douglas was between Tagovailoa and his target. He undercut the throw, sealing a 26-20 victory that legitimized the Packers as playoff contenders, giving life to their late-season resurgence.
“I was just really going off feel,” Douglas said. “I know the plays that they like running, and I’m going off feel. Try to keep them in front of me. Keep them in bounds more so – because they’d used all their timeouts – and just going off feel. If I feel like I can go get something, I’m going to try to end it. If not, just play the situation.”
The situation was a drastic reversal from the first half. The Packers secondary looked lost and confused after Sunday’s opening kickoff, the same bewilderment they’ve shown much of this season. They were incapable of executing a game plan designed to limit Hill and Waddle from big plays.
Waddle turned the Dolphins second possession into a one-play touchdown drive, catching a pass underneath and making Jaire Alexander miss a tackle down the right sideline for an 84-yard score. After Gesicki converted first-and-20, the Dolphins had a first-and-15. Hill got open in the Packers secondary, catching a 52-yard pass that set up first-and-goal at the 1.
“They had two big plays in the first half that led to their points,” safety Adrian Amos said.
At halftime, Tagovailoa had 229 passing yards. He’d completed just nine passes. The stunning 25.4 yards per completion were too much for defensive backs coach Jerry Gray to stomach. Gray, not known to be temperamental, ripped into his secondary. “He cursed us out bad,” Douglas said. What upset him was how avoidable those two plays were.
The Packers opened a spot of grass deep in their secondary when safety Rudy Ford bit on an underneath route, allowing Hill to reach full throttle on his deep, over route. “Something,” Amos said, “that we can’t have happen.” Waddle’s touchdown came on an action fake that pulled the second level of the Packers defense close to the line of scrimmage, allowing the Dolphins’ second-year receiver with 4.3 speed to sprint into the open field.
Both catches led to touchdowns. If the defense was where it was supposed to be, Amos said, those plays wouldn’t happen.
Alexander said Gray’s tirade woke up the defense. The secondary started sticking to its assignments, and Tagovailoa started handing out Christmas gifts. The first came on an overthrow of a wide-open Hill at the start of the fourth quarter. From the 20-yard line, Hill ran a 10-yard stop route. He found a hole between five Packers defenders, an easy first down. Instead, Tagovailoa’s pass sailed at least a yard over his head, straight to Alexander.
“I almost was like, ‘I can’t believe it’s going over his head right now,’” Alexander said. “It was too good to be true.”
On the next drive, the Dolphins marched 59 yards on nine plays. Down 23-20, they were in field-goal range when Tagovailoa tried to thread a pass to running back Raheem Mostert in the right seam. Linebacker De’Vondre Campbell stepped in front of it for an interception.
The Dolphins had one more chance inside the 2-minute warning.
“There wasn’t a doubt that we were going to win,” Amos said. “I felt like, once we got moving in that second half, we could stop them. The only way we wasn’t is if we messed up. It was us just keeping the top on, and we could cover them.”
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Amos kept the top on Miami’s defense during that game-winning drive. As Tagovailoa dropped back on second down, the safety played over his tight end. He forced Gesicki to turn an out route to the sideline, where Douglas was waiting.
By then, the flood gates were open. A Packers defense that spent most of this season searching, trying to find the formula to unlock what on paper should be one of the NFL’s best, was sure a third straight interception was coming. They just didn’t know who would pick off Tagovailoa next.
Ultimately, Douglas got the football. Walker won the debate.
“We’re going to talk about it,” Walker said, pulling a hoodie over his shoulders, “probably when we get on the bus. Him and Ja are telling me I’m next. Eventually, that’ll happen.”