New England Patriots vs. Miami Dolphins: New England Week 1 Preview
For the New England Patriots, the commencement of the NFL regular season is not a cause for celebration or change, but rather business as usual. The Pats have been Super Bowl contenders for the past decade, and having built a team that seemingly resembles the champions of the early 2000s, expectations are again championship-or-bust in Foxborough.
But while the Patriots face a relatively soft opening first half, the opener on Sunday against the Miami Dolphins brings reason for trepidation. Playing under the searing Florida sun has given New England problems in the past, and most glaringly, Miami's stellar pass rush figures to challenge the Patriots' rebuilt offensive line.
Still, Pats fans should remain excited about the plethora of game-planning and play-calling possibilities that this talented and versatile roster provides. Continuity at most positions should result in generally smoother execution, especially considering that many of New England's early-season opponents are in various degrees of flux.
Read on for analysis of the most critical matchups and players if the Patriots are to sustain their 10-year winning streak in season openers.
Patriots Final Preseason/Cutdown Recap
It is not worth covering the actual game elements of the Patriots' final preseason contest, as the vast majority of those who played against the Giants are either off the roster or bit pieces in the scope of this week's contest. Looking instead at the final cutdown, we can extract a few more questions and observations that are relevant to Miami.
Most glaringly, it appears the only certainty along the offensive line is that Nate Solder will start at left guard. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer could fill Logan Mankins' vacancy at left guard, while the identities of the other three starters are a total mystery at this point. Given the talent and continuity of Miami's defensive line, this is one matchup where the Dolphins appear to hold a decisive advantage.
There are also a few positional quirks stemming from the final cuts, particularly at linebacker and safety. The Pats went extremely light at the former position in carrying just four players, whereas they now have six safeties, including ex-Dolphin Don Jones.
In fairness, the front seven will play a seemingly infinite permutation of fronts, so the low linebacker number is a bit misleading. Nevertheless, the linebacker-safety imbalance is an interesting wrinkle that may indicate an intention to utilize a three-safety "big nickel" package against the Dolphins.
Otherwise, the final Patriots roster largely lined up with most preseason prognostications, an unusual circumstance for this contrarian organization. As such, we should not expect too many personnel-related surprises until injuries necessitate change.
News and Notes
After last year's setback-filled rehab, this offseason has gone comparatively swimmingly for Rob Gronkowski. Despite the All-Pro tight end clearing himself for action on Sunday, coach Bill Belichick remained tight-lipped on Gronk's availability:
Considering that Gronkowski has hit every benchmark this summer, it seems quite likely that the Patriots will have their most dangerous and versatile offensive weapon in the lineup. However, this is also essentially Gronk's preseason, and he admitted to ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss that he will not be ready for the every-down burden that he typically shoulders.
Nevertheless, the Patriots seem likely to use him in the red zone, where 12 personnel would provide a plethora of options to stretch the Dolphins beyond their breaking point. It will be a few weeks before Gronkowski is truly a devastating weapon, but this summer has provided encouraging progress.
Keeping an Eye on Easley
The Patriots' first-round pick was relatively anonymous this preseason, as Dominique Easley spent the summer slowing ramping up his workload while recovering from last September's torn ACL. Now nearly 12 months removed from the injury, it appears Easley will make his Patriots debut against Miami:
"There is a strong belief defensive lineman Dominique Easley will make his debut in the regular-season..." http://t.co/PtSaxrASvU— Mike Dussault (@PatsPropaganda) September 4, 2014
The Dolphins' shaky interior line offers a relatively soft landing for Easley's first exposure to NFL action, but expectations for the ex-Florida Gator should remain modest, at least for now. It will likely be weeks before Easley reaches peak form, so anything more than a handful of sub-package rushes on Sunday would be surprising.
With Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga returning to health after early preseason injuries, there is little urgency for Easley to contribute immediately. That should allow the Pats to nurture him with the intent of reaping the profits by season's end, much like they did with Jamie Collins in 2013.
Eagles Prepped Pats?
After serving under Chip Kelly last season, new Dolphins' offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has implemented a reasonable facsimile of Philly's offense. But having faced Kelly's Eagles in joint practices and a preseason contest this summer, Devin McCourty believes the Pats should be well-prepared for the tempo and misdirection of the offense, per NESN.com's Doug Kyed:
Yeah, I think there will be some similarities. I guess we’ll really see how helpful it is when we’re out there on the field on Sunday. Some of the scheme stuff helps. When you have a coach that came directly from that system now as an offensive coordinator, I think of course it’s going to help a little bit.
It's important not to overrate scheme too much; after all, Miami did not also bring LeSean McCoy or DeSean Jackson to South Beach. Nevertheless, the no-huddle pace coupled with the Miami weather should test New England's conditioning and mental toughness, especially if the Dolphins possess the ball as well as the offense designs.
*All injury information via ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss.
It's a light week on the injury front for the Patriots, who were fortunate to escape the preseason without major injuries to any expected contributors. Absences from Jones and Siliga left the Pats thin on the interior during the preseason, but the latter's expected return will fortify the depth behind Vince Wilfork, Dominique Easley and Joe Vellano at the nose tackle, 3-technique and 5-technique spots.
Brady's calf injury kept him out of practice Thursday, but the quarterback proclaimed himself "ready to go," according to ESPNBoston.com's Lee Schechter. This looks like a simple maintenance day for the 37-year-old, who should not have any limitations on Sunday.
X-Factors and Matchups to Watch
Guards vs. Randy Starks/Jared Odrick
The potential of two new starting guards looks particularly daunting against one of the league's most underrated interior pass rushes. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), both Starks and Odrick were among the top 12 most productive pass-rushing defensive tackles on a per-snap basis. There is some overlap in skill set, since both are rush-first 3-techniques, but in nickel packages, the Starks-Odrick tandem could wreak havoc in the pocket.
Both are smaller defensive tackles (around 6'0", 300 pounds) who rely on speed and quick get-offs at the snap to succeed. As such, a powerful, lumbering lineman like Vollmer or Josh Kline could have issues, especially if the guard does not receive combo-blocking help from the center. Marcus Cannon and Dan Connolly both possess sufficient lateral agility, so perhaps that interior pairing would best stymie Starks and Odrick.
Miami should have its share of issues covering the middle of the field, so Brady's favorite routes should be open. The onus is on the guards to ensure that he has time to exploit the Dolphins' coverage liabilities at linebacker and safety.
Jerod Mayo/Jamie Collins vs. Charles Clay
Clay remains underrated in the mainstream conscience despite his 69-catch breakout 2013 campaign, but the Patriots were one of the few teams to demonstrate sufficient respect for the tight end. In the Week 15 matchup against the Dolphins, the Patriots used Aqib Talib to shadow Clay in the interior of the field, forcing Ryan Tannehill to rely on outside-breaking routes.
The Pats could theoretically employ a similar tactic with Darrelle Revis this year, but given that Tannehill proved capable of beating the defense through perimeter throws, it seems more likely that a linebacker will cover Clay this time. Jerod Mayo and Collins are the Patriots' two best coverage options at the position, and the latter especially has the speed to carry the smaller Clay on deep seam routes.
With the Pats likely to rely on predominantly man coverage schemes this year, Mayo and Collins must demonstrate the ability to sift through traffic in the middle to take away interior safety blankets. If the Patriots can neutralize Clay, they will be much better equipped to eliminate Tannehill's secondary options this time.
Offensive X-Factor: Stevan Ridley
The embattled Ridley remains an important factor in the offense, and games like this represent his opportunity to silence the surprisingly negative discourse surrounding the fourth-year back. The Dolphins mostly stood pat with a front seven that ranked 29th in rush defense DVOA last year, per Football Outsiders, which provides Ridley a juicy matchup to start his contract-year campaign.
One might refute this optimism by pointing out New England's uncertainty along the interior line, but that could actually play into Ridley's favor. The Patriots seem less likely to spread out the Dolphins with three- and four-receiver sets in fear of providing Miami free rushes at Brady. Therefore, look for plenty of run-conducive 21/Regular and 22/Tank power personnel.
Against the Philadelphia Eagles in the second preseason game, the Patriots experienced bouts of success with such personnel groupings. This is obviously a different team and a different setting, but given New England's track record, two-tight end sets should result in a big day on the ground.
Defensive X-Factor: Rob Ninkovich
Ninkovich receives the best matchup of any New England defender, as the right side of Miami's offensive line remains marred by uncertainty. Rookie right tackle Ja'Wuan James will receive his NFL baptism from the indefatigable Ninkovich, whose power-speed combination should lead to plenty of pressures.
The first-rounder is no pushover, but as Pro Football Focus' Khaled Elsayed notes, James struggled with pass protection at times this preseason. A speed-rusher like Chandler Jones might better exploit the rookie's raw footwork, but Ninkovich's strength should also allow him to collapse the edge against the run game.
The Patriots will hope to develop reliable pass-rushing options beyond Jones and Ninkovich. For this week, though, the latter should reinforce his status as one of the game's best all-around edge players.
The Patriots are the superior team on paper, but the regular-season opener always brings some degree of uncertainty. Even with a talented roster that experienced relatively little offseason turnover, the Patriots are far from a finished product that is capable of waltzing into the Super Bowl.
Consequently, expect some growing pains against the Dolphins. New England's issues appear minimal when juxtaposed against the many unknown variables in Miami, but it is not inconceivable that Bill Lazor's option-oriented spread scheme and a talented defense could knock off the AFC East favorites.
Nonetheless, while Pats fans have a tendency to amplify their team's woes, New England's strengths far outweigh their weaknesses. The offensive skill positions are totally intact from last season, so even if the Dolphins' pass rush excels, the Patriots can scheme around that quandary because of Brady's chemistry with his receivers.
Ultimately, the always-disciplined Pats should be well-prepared for the misdirection and numbers exploitation inherent in the offense that Lazor figures to run. Barring significant improvements in pocket poise and downfield accuracy from Tannehill, the Patriots figure to hold off the Dolphins.
Prediction: Patriots 30, Dolphins 22