Miami Dolphins: 5 Questions Entering Their MNF Matchup with the Patriots
It's hard to say that the Miami Dolphins have gotten worse than they were a year ago, when they finished with a 7-9 record.
The defense has only gotten better, with its elite defensive line all returning, Jason Taylor and Kevin Burnett upgrading the linebacker corps, and the young, promising secondary a year more experienced.
The offense ranked 31st in the NFL last year, so there is really nowhere to go but up. Quarterback Chad Henne has also looked promising in Brian Daboll's new offense, and knows he's on his last legs in Miami.
The Dolphins have the talent to contend for a playoff spot, but they are in a tough division and there are far too many question marks (especially on offense) to really figure out just how this team is going to do in 2011.
We'll know a lot more tomorrow night as the Dolphins face the Patriots in their regular season opener. The Patriots are understandably seven-point favorites on the road coming off a 14-2 season in 2010.
As the Dolphins try to beat the Patriots for the first time since December 2009, here are five things I'm watching for in the Monday Night Football matchup.
Can Chad Henne Continue His Preseason Momentum?
The pressure is squarely on Chad Henne, as he is entering the last year of his rookie deal after two mediocre seasons as the Dolphins' starting quarterback. The former second-rounder has shown flashes, but has been largely inconsistent, and the fate of both Henne and head coach Tony Sparano rest on this season.
Henne had a strong preseason and looked like he was taking to Brian Daboll's offense, but how well he'll fare in the regular season is still unknown. His offensive line has a lot of question marks still, while his running game is a complete unknown with Reggie Bush in a feature role and Daniel Thomas dinged up.
In New England, Henne will face a defense that has used a lot of 4-3 looks in recent years and has migrated even further toward the scheme in 2011. The line is downright scary with Vince Wilfork and Albert Haynesworth in the middle, and Jerod Mayo making plays from the linebacker position.
Facing an offense led by Tom Brady that has the potential to put up huge numbers against any defense, Henne will be feeling the pressure right away to play mistake-free football and lead the Dolphins down the field and into the end zone with regularity.
Can Reggie Bush Handle the Role of Feature Back?
The Dolphins acquired Bush before training camp in what seemed to be a move to add a dynamic complementary back to the offense, but Tony Sparano says he is the uncontested starter after rookie Daniel Thomas, who is currently nursing a hamstring injury, struggled with pass protection in the preseason.
The question is whether Bush can handle such a role, considering his extensive injury history and his uninspiring ground numbers from his time in New Orleans. Bush has the physical tools to be a real dynamic threat, but it's fair to wonder if he'll ever be able to start long-term in the NFL if he couldn't succeed in Sean Payton's high-powered offense.
Bush will be tested right away. Not only will he have to shoulder more of a load if Daniel Thomas can't play, but he'll be going up against a scary Patriots defensive line. Making matters worse is that Bush's offensive line is highly questionable, with Richie Incognito a fairly mediocre player, Mike Pouncey an unproven rookie, and Vernon Carey and Marc Colombo looking slow and plodding on the right side.
How Will Mike Pouncey Handle a Tough New England DL in His Pro Debut?
Pouncey wasn't a sexy pick at No.15 overall in April, but he certainly filled a need as an upgrade over veteran center Joe Berger, who really struggled as a starter in 2011.
Pouncey may very well join All-Pro left tackle Jake Long as a staple of the Dolphins' offensive line for years to come, and I believe he has the talent to do fairly well as a rookie starter.
That being the case, a regular season debut on Monday Night Football against a Patriots' defensive line featuring Vince Wilfork and Albert Haynesworth is not exactly ideal and presents a humongous challenge for the rookie.
Haynesworth looks rejuvenated in New England, while Wilfork has embarrassed Dolphins' centers, and has wreaked havoc on the offense in the past. That being the case, it's fair to wonder if he'll dominant once again against the talented but inexperienced Pouncey.
Will Cameron Wake Take Advantage of the Patriots' Tackle Injuries?
Well, after three pessimistic (or at the very least, cautious) slides about how the Dolphins may be in for trouble against New England, it's about time for some positivity when it comes to Miami matching up with the Pats, isn't it?
Fresh off a 14.5-sack performance and Pro Bowl selection in his first year of starting, Dolphins outside linebacker Cameron Wake is looking to get off to a quick start this season.
Wake has two sacks in four career games against the Patriots and has also held up very well against the run, so he will no doubt be looking to make an impact once again and force Tom Brady into making some mistakes.
Helping aid Wake's cause is that he will at times be going up against a rookie tackle in Nate Solder, who is expected to replace Sebastian Vollmer (back injury) on the right side of the Patriots' offensive line.
A former college tight end, Solder has a lot of promise as a first-round pick but obviously hasn't started an NFL regular season game yet. He's known as a finesse guy that needs to bulk up for the NFL level, and I wouldn't be surprised if Wake schools him a few times tomorrow night.
Will Reshad Jones Thrive in Chris Clemons' Absence?
A fifth-round pick in 2009, Chris Clemons worked primarily on special teams as a rookie before taking over as the Dolphins' starting free safety last season.
Totaling 61 tackles, 1.5 sacks and an interception during the 2010 campaign, reviews on Clemons were mixed, with primary criticisms being his lacking coverage skills and a tendency to whiff on potential big plays or turnovers.
The general consensus seems to be that Clemons has a lot of upside, but he came out of the preseason as the default winner of the free safety job after he and second-year man Reshad Jones failed to gain any separation.
But Clemons has missed practice time this week due to a leg injury, so the door is opened for Jones to see significant playing time. Jones flashed potential at times as a rookie, and most seem to believe he has more upside as a starter.
Both players will realistically play significantly on defense in 2011, but Jones has a chance to separate himself if he plays well against a challenging Patriots' offense.