Week 1 of the NFL season is always a case of the unknown and the unexpected. Every team has made additions and subtractions to their roster, but no one is exactly sure what to expect.
From a brand-new offensive line to a brand-new scheme, the Miami Dolphins bring an element of unknown to Sunday's game.
For the New England Patriots, the major changes took place in the secondary with the addition of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, as well as some scheme changes up front with the Patriots' renewed use of the 3-4.
There's no question in Bill Belichick's mind that Week 1 is one of the more difficult games to prepare for.
"Oh yeah, sure, without a doubt," Belichick said on a conference call with the Dolphins media on Wednesday. "I mean, the opening game is probably the hardest game of the year to prepare for because there are just unknowns. Teams have held things back that they haven’t shown in preseason. You’re not sure exactly how they’re going to use their personnel, what different wrinkles they have."
With offensive coordinator Bill Lazor running the show, the Dolphins offense will look dramatically different from what we've seen from them in the past two seasons under former offensive coordinator Mike Sherman. In 2012 and 2013, the Dolphins were a very vanilla offense that did not leave much to the imagination. With Lazor and the experience he gained under Chip Kelly with the Philadelphia Eagles, vanilla is likely as far as it gets from what we'll see from the Dolphins going forward.
That being said, Lazor may not borrow completely from his time in Philadelphia. He has worked under Joe Gibbs and Mike Holmgren in the past as well, and those experiences could play into his decisions on what to do with the Dolphins offense.
The similarities, however, are already beginning to reveal themselves.
"I would say that they look very similar to the way the Eagles look offensively—different than what Miami looked like last year," Belichick said in a conference call Tuesday. "I'd say [Lazor's imprint on the offense is] quite substantial."
One of the main similarities will be their use of the no-huddle offense to help capitalize on mismatches in the passing game.
The Dolphins did not reveal much in the way of their no-huddle strategy this preseason, but things are beginning to ramp up.
"I think we're getting faster," Lazor said Monday. "I think you see it on the practice field. Yesterday, when we went out and practiced, I thought our pass skelly was faster. I think guys are moving. We want guys that can play in space. We want guys who when they get the ball in their hands, (they) know what to do with it. We want guys that can separate and that's really what we're pushing toward. I think every single day we're seeing it get better."
There's only so much the Patriots can do if they get stuck in bad matchups, and if the Dolphins don't make any substitutions, that makes it difficult for the Patriots to do so.
Perhaps the Patriots will benefit from the experience of practicing against Kelly's Eagles during training camp, but there are no guarantees that what we've seen from Miami in the preseason is what we'll continue to see in the regular season.
Likewise, although we've seen a lot more 3-4 looks from the Patriots this preseason than in recent years, that doesn't mean we'll see a lot of 3-4 from them against the Dolphins. The Patriots tend to be very multiple in their defensive packages and have spent more time in their sub-packages than in their base defense over the past several seasons.
|Patriots defensive packages|
|Source: Mike Reiss, ESPN|
Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston tracks the Patriots' use of sub-packages every year and has found that they have used their sub-package more often than their base defense in each of the past four seasons. Their base defense was a 3-4 in 2010 but has been a 4-3 each year since then. With the switch back to a 3-4, there will be some changes, but their heavy use of the sub-package may not be one of them.
That being said, the sub-package can have any number of meanings. It can be a four-man line with two linebackers, a three-man line with three linebackers or any combination of defensive players that ends up with more than four defensive backs.
And that's not all. The Patriots have utilized their cornerbacks as safeties at times in the preseason, with Logan Ryan, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington all playing a hybrid role as a third cornerback/second safety at the same time, depending on personnel groupings.
The Patriots' ability to change on the fly, combined with their offseason changes, and their relentless search for versatile players, gives them their own element of unknown to prepare for.
The Dolphins may want to get more invested in the hurry-up offense, but there needs to be some balance between hurrying up to keep the defense on its heels and making sure they're reading their keys correctly before each play.
"I think there's going to be a little bit of feeling out," head coach Joe Philbin said on a conference call with Patriots media on Wednesday. "I think you have to prepare for all 53 players on the roster. You're not exactly sure of the combinations that they will use, and I'm sure they're not exactly sure of the combinations we're going to use and how we're going to deploy different people and so forth. That's kind of part of the game."
The two teams don't have too much time to feel each other out. They only have a 60-minute football game to not only figure out what's working and what isn't working for them as a team, but they also must try to figure out what the other team is doing and how to best attack it.
This encounter of new schemes, new coaches and new players may seem rare, but in reality, these things happen on a yearly basis.
"Regardless of how many years a particular staff has been in place, I think there's always in that first game, there's unscouted things," said Philbin. "There's things that are going to occur in the game that we're going to have to be able to adjust to and adapt to."
We're seeing both ends of that spectrum in this game. For the Patriots, it's a group of coaches who have been in place for a while, using a few new players, combined with some systemic changes. For the Dolphins, it's a brand-new unit up front and a brand-new scheme.
How these two teams adjust to one another, while sorting out their own issues, will have a direct impact on which team starts 1-0 and which starts 0-1.