As the New England Patriots face off against the Miami Dolphins, the alpha and beta males will once again try to assert dominance in the AFC East. The Dolphins haven't had a winning record since topping the AFC East in 2008, while the Patriots have won the division 10 of the last 12 seasons.
However, when the Miami sun starts beating down and the pads start cracking, history starts to wilt.
Here is what New England needs to do to assure victory in Week 1.
Patriots Defense vs. Dolphins Offense
The Patriots defense should have one focus on Sunday: get to Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Tannehill was one of the worst quarterbacks under pressure in the league, completing just 44.2 percent of his passes with a pass rush bearing down on him. In addition to being sacked a league-leading 58 times, 10 of Tannehill's 17 interceptions came whilst under pressure.
If Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and the rest of the defensive line can harass Tannehill, speedy Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace won't have time to uncover on his deep routes.
The Dolphins were a very good play-action team in 2013, so the starting trio of Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower and Jerod Mayo need to watch their keys and not commit to stopping the run too early. Tight end Charles Clay can be a menace if left unchecked in these situations.
Expect to see a rotation opposite cornerback Devin McCourty, depending on the situation. Duron Harmon and Kyle Arrington could get the call in obvioius passing situations, while Pat Chung and Tavon Wilson could see action on earlier downs.
Patriots Offense vs. Dolphins Defense
According to Erik Scalavino of Patriots Football Weekly, a most important piece of the offensive puzzle will be on the field—for at least part of the game—against the Miami Dolphins.
With Gronkowski on the field, Tom Brady will be able to decide how to attack the Dolphins defense. If it matches up in base personnel, Brady can take advantage of Gronkowski on a linebacker or safety and throw the ball. If the Dolphins match up in nickel, Brady can use Gronk as a blocker and run the ball.
Miami corner Brent Grimes should be able to hang with one of the Patriots receivers—perhaps Julian Edelman—but he can't cover all of them. Look for Brady to stay away from Grimes and target Cortland Finnegan, Will Davis and Jamar Taylor.
What They're Saying
Whether he is blowing smoke or not, when Tom Brady himself praises his defense in public, you should take notice. Via Doug Kyed from NESN.com, Brady ad nothing but positives for the opposite eleven:
They’ve got a great style...They’re a very fundamentally sound defense. We work on the fundamentals all the time. It’s just tough to go up against them. They do a lot of things very well — very good secondary that’s tough, aggressive, jump a lot of routes. Our defense is tough to go against.
Our linebackers all have experience, (defensive) line is experienced. It’s been great work for us as an offense to go up against a really well-rounded group because that’s what we’re going to face here this week — a very well-rounded group that’s good on all levels of the defense.
That defense has played a large part in helping get the offense ready for Week 1. Whether the offense has prepared the defense well enough remains to be seen. The lack of a dynamic tight end for the defense to work against for much of the offseason couldn't have helped.
Tale of the Tape
The combination of his experience—Brady has played nearly the same amount of games in Miami as Tannehill has—and arm talent still give him the edge over the more mobile youngster. They may be trending different directions, but the old man still has a couple seasons left.
Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen and their counterparts on Miami, Knowshon Moreno and Lamar Miller, are a tightly matched bunch. Each duo has some inconsistency, but can get chunks of yards in a hurry when they are at their best. Moreno, in his most prolific game as a pro, put up 224 yards against New England in a losing effort while playing for the Denver Broncos.
Mike Wallace may have a big name, but he hasn't backed it up with his play so far in Miami. Meanwhile, the Patriots toil in relative obscurity—save for Julian Edelman—but continue to produce. It could be Edelman, Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Brandon LaFell or Kenbrell Thompkins, but somebody will have a big day.
If Rob Gronkowski plays for any amount of time—even for 15-20 snaps—he can tilt the game with his red-zone ability. Charles Clay's versatility will draw a lot of attention from the Patriots defensive backfield and linebackers, although newly acquired Patriot Tim Wright will be trying to duplicate Clay's role.
While the Patriots line is undergoing some turmoil with Logan Mankins now residing in Tampa, the Dolphins have been a hot mess. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), only two of the Miami's 15 offensive linemen escaped with a positive rating—Nate Garner and Branden Albert. Projected starter Dallas Thomas somehow ended up with a minus-15.8 rating in just 133 snaps, which is somewhat impressive in a macabre sort of way.
Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are solid bookends at defensive end, but both are striving to get where Cameron Wake has already been. Vince Wilfork, Dominique Easley—if he is able to play—and the assortment of other parts at defensive tackle have a lot of promise, but little has been proven so far. Jared Odrick and Randy Starks have had success against New England in the past.
The trio of Dont'a Hightower, Jerod Mayo and Jamie Collins may be one of the more complete linebacker groups in the AFC. Coverage, blitzing, hitting...they can do it all. Dannell Ellerbe, Philip Wheeler and Koa Misi can do a lot of the same things, but don't have the explosiveness which which the Patriots linebackers play.
Darrelle Revis will swing this battle in New England's favor nearly every week, but with the Dolphins missing safety Reshad Jones due to suspension, it widens the gap even further. Brent Grimes is a superior corner, but Jamar Taylor, Will Davis and Cortland Finnegan—at this point in his career anyway—just don't match the same firepower that Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan bring.
Jarvis Landry has the ability to make a play in the return game, but Stephen Gostkowski's leg shouldn't give him a chance. Julian Edelman, however, consistently makes plays on punt returns, whether he has room or not. The uncertainty surrounding the Patriots' long-snapper, however, makes this a push.
Overall: Patriots 6-0-3
On paper, this game is a blowout waiting to happen. However, that rarely comes to pass when the Patriots visit Miami. The oppressive weather—heat indexes are expected to reach close to 100—has a way of evening things out.
Wednesday's Injury Report Analysis (via Patriots.com)
Did Not Participate: none
Limited Participation: Rob Gronkowski, Michael Buchanan, Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones
Full Participation: none
While the limited participants aren't a big surprise, the absence of some big names is bound to make some noise. Dominique Easley, Dont'a Hightower, Aaron Dobson and Jerod Mayo all should be available on Sunday. Easley, however, hasn't seen the field during preseason and could still be held out.
On the Dolphins side of the ball, center Mike Pouncey, linebacker Jordan Tripp and defensive end Terrence Fede did not practice. Notable limited participants were tight end Charles Clay, linebackers Koa Misi and Philip Wheeler, guard Billy Turner and cornerback Jamar taylor.