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Why Tyreek Hill is eager to face Eli Apple. And former Patriot offers warning to Dolphins

David Santiago/dsantiago@miamiherald.com

A six-pack of Miami Dolphins notes on a Wednesday, on the eve of Miami’s game at Cincinnati (8:15 p.m., Amazon Prime, Channel 39):

One of the interesting subplots of Thursday’s game is Tyreek Hill’s matchup against Eli Apple, at least when the Bengals choose to match their veteran cornerback against Miami’s Pro Bowl receiver.

Hill raised eyebrows after Sunday’s win against Buffalo when he said “I can’t wait to go against Eli Apple, man. I owe you, boy. I owe you. I’m here. The Cheetah is here. That’s it.”

I analyzed every Hill matchup against Apple through the years, through metrics from Pro Football Focus. In their careers, only three passes thrown to Hill have come with Apple in coverage; all of them were in the AFC Championship last January, and Hill caught all three for 39 yards.

So what’s the deal here?

Here’s the context, as Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio noted this week:

With the Chiefs leading the Bengals 21-10 and five seconds left in the first half of the AFC Championship Game, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes — on second-and-goal from the Bengals’ 1 — completed a short pass to Hill, but Apple tackled him short of the goal line.

The half then ran out without the Chiefs scoring. The Bengals rallied and won 27-24 to advance to the Super Bowl.

Apple didn’t address the issue this week, but safety Jessie Bates told ESPN.com this week that if “somebody comes after Eli, he comes after all of us. We’re all up for the challenge. I don’t know if Eli got him tickets to the Super Bowl last year or not. I think that’s probably why he’s a little upset.”

And Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton told ESPN: “It must have still been in [Hill’s] head a little bit, obviously, if he brought it up. We’re not with all the talking. We’re just going to go out there and handle our business on Thursday.”

Apple, the former 10th overall pick of the Giants in 2016, has had a somewhat disappointing career, bouncing among the Giants, New Orleans, Carolina and Cincinnati. He has five interceptions in 76 games, including 66 starts. He has started all three games for the Bengals this season.

The big question Thursday is whether the Dolphins — who had four sacks against Buffalo — can get to Joe Burrow, who has been sacked 15 times, which is tied with Washington’s Carson Wentz for most in the league.

The other question is whether Dolphins defenders will be tired from their exhausting game against the Bills in 100-plus degree field conditions.

Several Dolphins had unusually high snap totals. Jevon Holland played 92 defensive snaps, Nik Needham 90, Brandon Jones and Jerome Baker 83 apiece and Xavien Howard 81.

(While it was widely reported that Buffalo had 90 plays to Miami’s 39, the NFL says the Bills actually ran 92 plays on offense, compared with 43 for the Dolphins.)

These are obviously all well-conditioned players, but will fatigue be a factor for the Dolphins defense?

“It’s hard to tell,” Needham said. “It will be colder game up there. We’re in pretty good shape. We went through training camp [in intense heat]. I think we’ll be good for Thursday.”

The Dolphins flew to Cincinnati early Wednesday to avoid the hurricane. They had planned to practice in South Florida on Wednesday morning, but that didn’t happen.

“We’ve got a couple of live periods [in practice Wednesday],” Needham said before the change in travel plans. “We can’t just chill all week.”

How does Holland feel after playing 92 snaps on defense?

“Right now? Man, I feel like I jumped off a building or something,” he said Tuesday. “My body is hurting. But it’s all right, though. We’ve got ice tubs. I take care of myself.”

Raheem Mostert noted that the Dolphins “opened up the facility right after the [Bills] game so we could get in here and do what we needed to do in order to get prepared for Thursday.”

Of course, the Bengals also are coming off a Sunday game, a win at the Jets that was less grueling than Miami’s game against Buffalo.

Some Dolphins battled the heat during Sunday’s game by drinking pickle juice.

“I’m drinking pickle juice on the sideline because I’m feeling like I’m about to cramp and I usually don’t, so that’s how hot it was, because I usually don’t even feel that,” linebacker Duke Riley said. “The pickle juice wasn’t even cold. So, I mean, just think about drinking hot pickle juice. Right? It’s already bad but then you drink it hot.”

ESPN’s Domonique Foxworth has become one of Tua Tagovailoa’s biggest advocates, along with colleague Dan Orlovsky.

Foxworth keeps pushing back when ESPN colleague Chris Canty questions Tagovailoa, including on “Get Up” on Wednesday.

“He is an excellent quarterback and he’s showing the potential to make this team a championship contender,” said Foxworth, the former NFL cornerback and players union president. “He’s a franchise quarterback.”

Canty, meanwhile, countered that “I’ve still got questions about Tua. Can he stay healthy? Can he win head-to-head with upper-echelon quarterbacks? I don’t know that we can assign wins to just the quarterback… He’s a good game manager.”

Former Patriots receiver Julian Edelman offered one caution on the Dolphins on “Inside the NFL” on Paramount Plus:

“They are battle-tested. They have gone out and beat New England, the Ravens and this past week with Buffalo. Yes, they’ve had some really good wins.

“But the things that worry me the most about teams like Miami and Philadelphia — these teams that haven’t really won before in the last three or four years — is that they start drinking their Kool-Aid. They start feeling themselves. They don’t know how to handle success. When I was on the Patriots, the better we did, the harder it was for us at practice. The harder it was in the meeting rooms because that’s what you have to do.”

We wrote this week about how smart coaching decisions are helping the Dolphins, and NFL Network’s David Carr — the former first overall draft pick — this week said Miami has “elite coaching and that will show on Thursday. What they do from a defensive perspective is they get after the quarterback. We know Joe Burrow has some issues with pass protection.

“That [Dolphins] offensive staff is really, really good and they’re going to put pressure on the Cincinnati defense from multiple angles.”

Quick stuff:

Amazon Prime is allowing viewers to stream their Thursday NFL games for free on Twitch without a membership. So you can get Dolphins-Bengals for free on Channel 39 in Miami, on Twitch, at a sports bar or with a free four week Amazon Prime trial….

Pro Football Focus ranks Tagovailoa the No. 5 MVP candidate, behind Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Jalen Hurts and Lamar Jackson. PFF gives Tagovailoa an 8 percent chance to win the award…

Jaylen Waddle (3.98) and Tyreek Hill (3.48) are first and second in the league in yards after catch per reception, per PFF…

Mike McDaniel’s decision to have his center (Connor Williams) make line calls — which includes adjusting and setting protections and identifying the middle linebacker among other things — has paid dividends.

Tagovailoa, who handled that responsibility under Brian Flores, said this week that the change by McDaniel has helped him focus on reading defenses.

Offensive coordinator Frank Smith said the Chargers do the same to help Justin Herbert, and McDaniel’s past teams (primarily the 49ers) have done the same.

“Ultimately, you want the center to have an understanding of what’s going on in the front,” Smith said. “The quarterback and him have a communication. We understand the plan, the stresses during the week that we need to be on the same page with…. Ultimately, them working together is a lot easier than one person just telling the other ones what to do. I think it starts with Connor and Tua sharing great communication to make sure we’re pointing in the right direction.”