THIS WEEK’S MATCH-UP:
The New England Patriots host the New England Patriots South Florida Edition, I mean the Miami Dolphins, on Sunday. Fans are back in Foxboro. The future has arrived at quarterback and his name is Mac Jones.
As it is week one of the 2021 NFL season, there is the added excitement that both teams have put very little on tape and both teams will have new wrinkles on both sides of the ball to account for. However, these two teams and coaches both know each other intimately at this point.
DEFENSIVE TEAM STATS:
Last year the New England defense was 10th in points allowed and were eighth in passing yards allowed (all statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted). Unfortunately, they were porous against the run allowing 2,103 yards and a 4.5 yards per rush average.
The defense was average on third-down conversions (16th in the league allowing a 40.9% conversion rate) and among the worst in the red zone. Opponents waltzed into the end zone with ease in 2020 once they got inside the 20 yard line scoring 32 red zone touchdowns in 49 attempts for a 65.3% conversion rate. Only five NFL teams were worse last year.
HOW TO WATCH/LISTEN:
If you don’t have tickets or cannot get to Foxboro on Sunday, this week’s game will be broadcast by CBS and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in the greater Boston area and on WPRI-TV Channel 12 in the greater Rhode Island area. Outside of New England, much of the country will see the Chiefs and Browns game instead of the Patriots and Dolphins.
For CBS, the best play-by-play broadcaster on-air Kevin Harlan will call the game with Trent Green as the color analyst. Melanie Collins will work from the sidelines.
If you’re working, taking care of that honey-do list outside or stuck at a family barbeque, the game is being broadcast to a national audience by ESPN Radio. Marc Kestecher and former Patriots linebacker and rising media star Rob Ninkovich will call the game with Ian Fitzsimmons providing sideline analysis.
Locally, 98.5 The Sports Hub is the flagship station for the Patriots Radio Network. There are a dozen Massachusetts radio stations, four in Main, three in Connecticut, eight in New Hampshire, five in Vermont, two in Rhode Island and even an outpost in Rochester, NY carrying play-by-play broadcaster Bob Socci calling the action with former
Patriots quarterback Scott Zolak providing his unique brand of extremely colorful color analysis.
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WHEN THE OPPONENT RUNS THE BALL:
Last season the run defense in New England was simply awful. The Patriots were 26th in rushing attempts allowed and yards rushing. They allowed 17 rushing touchdowns and opponents cruised to an average of 4.5 yards per rush in 2020.
The rest of the front seven was a mess. There was the shocking and sudden decline of John Simon and Shilique Calhoun on the edge. Byron Cowart, Tashawn Bower, Nick Thurman and Xavier Williams were trying to control the line of scrimmage. Lawrence Guy was playing too many snaps and injured while Adam Butler was still a one-dimensional pass rusher. The one ray of hope, Carl Davis, was injured and out after just a few games.
Bill Belichick has had enough. Hightower and Van Noy are back. Carl Davis and Lawrence Guy are healthy and free agents Henry Anderson and Davon Godchaux have been poached from AFC East rivals to fix the interior run defense. Rookie Christian Barmore is electric and a potential game-changer in the middle of the defensive line.
On the edge, old reliable Deatrich Wise is back and rookie Ronnie Perkins joins Chase Winovich and Pro Bowl free-agent pickup Matt Judon. Judon is impressive getting after the quarterback, but his ability to drop into coverage and not only set the edge but make plays against the run this preseason make him (dare I say it? I do, I dare to say it) the most complete edge rusher in New England since Willie McGinest.
The Dolphins’ running game was just ordinary last season, other than rushing for 250 yards against the Patriots in week 15. They bring back Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed and replaced Matt Breida with Malcolm Brown (the Texas Longhorns running back via the Los Angeles Rams, not the former New England defensive tackle–also a former Longhorn–who spells his first name with just one “L”).
If it sounds like an unimpressive group that’s because it is exactly what it is. This offense in Miami is built to throw the ball. Gaskins is a good receiver out of the backfield and while Ahmed had a career game against the Patriots in week fifteen last year, remember he had 12 rushes for 31 yards combined over the last two weeks of the season.
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The Miami offensive line is in flux and how they run block on Sunday remains to be seen. Greg Little will start for Austin Jackson at left tackle and rookie Liam Eichenberg likely at left guard, but right tackle Jesse Davis could slide to the left and either Eichenberg or Robert Hunt could take right tackle.
Of course, Eichenberg has played left guard and right tackle in camp but was a left tackle in college. They also have Solomon Kindley, a rookie last year like Hunt, who could be in line to play at guard.
In flux is not usually a good thing for an offensive line. Michael Deiter, who lost his job after 2019, is back at center. Little will be there somewhere. After that roll the dice. But do not expect the Dolphins to generate 100 yards, let alone the 250 yards from last year’s match-up, on the ground on Sunday afternoon.
Key Match-up to Watch:
NT Davon Godchaux vs C Michael Deiter:
Presumably, these two went at it in practice in Miami the last two seasons. Deiter was a liability in 2019 and lost his job to Ted Karras. Karras is back in New England joined by Godchaux. Dieter has his job back and his first test is against his old teammate.
Godchaux is six-foot-three and over 310 pounds. He is big, strong and anxious to get on the field after a torn bicep wiped away much of last season. What will endear him to the fans in New England is his ability to mix it up and not give up on a play. He wins with determination despite being 50 lbs lighter than some nose tackles.
Deiter was bad in 2019 as a guard and benched for all of 2020. That said, he was a third-round draft pick out of Wisconsin and the Miami coaches have raved about him. The Dolphins cut veteran Matt Skura this preseason and gave the job to Deiter. He has a tough task ahead of him this week.
WHEN THE OPPONENT PASSES THE BALL:
While New England should stifle the Dolphins running game, that offensive line in Miami will need to be ready to pass protect. The Patriots have upgraded their pass rush significantly in 2021.
Last year the pass rush was Chase Winovich (5.5 sacks) and…uh, let’s see…well, not much else. Last year saw Derek Rivers (1.5 sacks), Shilique Calhoun (2 sacks), Anfernee Jennings (0 sacks), and John Simon (2 sacks) consistently stuffed by opposing tackles. Josh Uche flashed as a rookie, but injuries slowed his development and limited his playing time.
Enter Matt Judon. Enter Kyle Van Noy. See a healthy Josh Uche with a normal offseason and preseason. With Deatrich Wise back and rookies Christian Barmore and Ronnie Perkins added to the mix, the Patriots actually have players who can generate pressure without blitzing.
As I noted above, the Miami offensive line is kind of a mess. Left tackle Austin Jackson is their premier lineman and he is likely out due to Covid-19. Greg Little was available to Miami because he could never stay healthy in Carolina and when he did play, he did not play well. He finished two years on injured reserve and had an ankle injury already this summer in Carolina.
Jesse Davis is solid at right tackle and the offensive interior is young and kind of an unknown. Deiter is an odd choice at center and the guard spots are manned by first and second-year players. Rookie second-round draft pick Liam Eichenberg and 2020 second-round draft pick Robert Hunt are the presumed starters. Undrafted free agent Robert Jones and last year’s fourth-round pick Solomon Kindley are the expected depth players inside.
The New England secondary has the toughest match-up on Sunday. Miami is loaded with young talent at wide receiver and tight end Mike Gesicki has always been a handful for the New England defense. If quarterback Tua Tagovailoa can get the ball to them, this group can make big plays.
The Patriots are without All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore who will miss the first six weeks of the season. The Dolphins are without their big offseason acquisition, Will Fuller, who is suspended for week one.
DeVante Parker is the top receiver. He has had three games with over 100 yards receiving against the Patriots going back to 2015. In ten career games against the Patriots, he has 36 catches for 504 yards.
Preston Williams is a potential match-up nightmare due to his size, but injuries nag him. He’s on the injury report again this week. The Dolphins may use Mack Hollins more with Fuller out and Williams dinged-up, but the centerpiece of their receiving corps is rookie Jaylen Waddle.
Waddle should have a key role after being taken sixth overall in the draft. Albert Wilson will get snaps in the slot, but that is where Waddle thrives. With his former college quarterback running the offense, the chemistry is already there for Waddle and Tua.
New England is set with JC Jackson as the number one cornerback and Jonathan Jones manning the slot. Jalen Mills is on the injury report and could lead to more playing time for Joejuan Williams or newly acquired rookie Shaun Wade. Myles Bryant or D’Angelo Ross are options on the practice squad who could be elevated if Mills cannot go.
Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips, and Kyle Dugger will likely be tasked to handle Miami’s receiving tight end Mike Gesicki. Second tight end Adam Shaheen is on the Covid-19 list and will miss the game. Durham Smythe is the back-up now and more of a blocker than receiver. Rookie third-round draft pick Hunter Long is no stranger to the area after playing at Boston College.
Key Match-up to Watch:
CB Jonathan Jones vs WR Jaylen Waddle
The young veteran Jones will have his hands full with the speedy and agile Waddle. Waddle can get deep and get in and out of cuts with surprising burst and smoothness. Of course, a short crossing route can turn into a track meet with the pure speed of Waddle once the ball is in his hands.
The Dolphins traded back up to get Waddle and he is the definition of a big-play receiver. Jet sweeps, screens, crossers, deep double-moves–nothing is off the table with Waddle on the field. He makes big plays, period. Somehow, Jones is going to have to limit those big plays with sure tackling and keeping the rookie in front of him.
–Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01
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