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.
OFFENSIVE TEAM STATS:
Last season in year one ATB (After Tom Brady), the offense was…well, let’s not use profanity and just say it was terrible. The team was 27th in points scored and 27th in total yards (all statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted). They were great running the ball, good for fourth-most yards on the ground at 2,346 yards and a 4.7 yards per rush attempt.
Moving the ball through the air was an ugly experience. New England was 30th in passing yards (only 2,890 yards) and it felt like half of them came from Julian Edelman and Jakobi Meyers trick plays. The team had just 12 passing touchdowns and two came from Meyers.
They were league average on third down and bottom of the pack in the red zone. The Patriots’ offense scored just 54.2% of the time in the red zone with just 26 touchdowns on 48 attempts. That was good for 24th in the league.
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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.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN THE BALL:
Even with Sony Michel traded away, the running game should be a strength for the Patriots. Damien Harris looks like a true bellcow back and is coming off a season averaging five yards per rush. While the quarterback won’t rush for 592 yards this season, there is plenty of talent in the backfield.
Rookie Rhamondre Stevenson could be a fourth-round steal as he stole the hearts of New England fans in the preseason with powerful downhill running style and surprising elusiveness, pass catching and breakaway speed.
J.J. Taylor flashed in rare opportunities last year and this summer has taken on the “Rex Burkhead” dual-threat runner/receiver role. In open space, Taylor is a big play waiting to happen. James White remains Mr. Reliable for his pass blocking and receiving ability.
The offensive line drives the running game and despite losing Joe Thuney in free agency, it may be that the unit is upgraded in 2021. Isaiah Wynn is healthy and productive at left tackle and Trent Brown is back to his dominant ways playing on the right side after a trade with Las Vegas.
Inside, last year’s rookie sensation Michael Onwenu is sliding from right tackle to left guard and has looked comfortable all summer inside. David Andrews spurned more money in free agency to return to New England and the best run blocker of the group,Shaq Mason, is healthy at right guard and should be back to his dominant form.
The depth on the line is solid with second-year tackle Justin Herron and Yodny Cajuste both looking starter-quality in the preseason games. Inside, the Patriots got Ted Karras back in free agency and traded for Yasir Durant from Kansas City. On the practice squad, they stashed rookie William Sherman, perennial Patriots backup center James Ferentz, and veteran guard Alex Redmond.
Miami struggled in stopping the run last season with Davon Godchaux injured. Well, now he’s in New England. Miami gave up 4.5 yards per rush last season, and were gashed by the Patriots for over 200 yards on the ground in last year’s opener. Good rushing teams ground out yards against the Dolphins while their run-defense feasted on the Jets, Bengals and Jaguars.
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The Dolphins missed Harris due to injuries in the second match-up last year, but Sony Michel piled up 74 yards on just ten carries. The Patriots oddly abandoned the running game and went pass-whacky in the second half despite leading into the fourth quarter and ultimately lost the game and was eliminated from the playoffs.
The Patriots should be able to run the ball on Sunday as Miami’s strength on defense is the secondary and rushing the passer. Nose tackle Raekwon Davis should be improved this year against the run, and linebacker Jerome Baker is a tackling machine. Flores loves former Patriots linebacker Elandon Roberts and he will have plenty of chances to try and bring down the Patriots backs.
Key Match-up to Watch:
If Miami has any hope of stopping the New England running game, they have to set the edge and turn the backs inside to the strength of the Miami defense inside. When they’re on the field, these edge rushers for Miami will be finding themselves lined up against Trent Brown.
When Brown was last seen in New England, he was dominating smaller edge rushers in the running game opening huge holes for the backs. With 380 lbs of strength firing off the line at them, Van Ginkel (245 lbs), Scarlett (265 lbs) and Phillips (266 lbs) will need to hold their own and use their quickness to hold up in the running game.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS THE BALL:
Unlike in 2019 and 2020, the Patriots have upgraded the skill position players and may have the tools to launch a semi-decent passing attack in 2021. While Cam Newton and his still injured foot and shoulder were a lot of the blame in 2020, Damiere Byrd, Gunner Olszewski, N’Keal Harry, Donte Moncrief and the sad-sack tight end group were simply not up to the job.
Reinforcements are in Foxboro now. Tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry should eclipse the 26 combined receptions by tight ends in New England last year by week five. Jakobi Meyers returns at wide receiver but has the explosive Nelson Agholor and the slippery Kendrick Bourne lining up all over the formation.
Gadget player Malcolm Perry is out injured this week and Harry is on the injured list as well, but the Patriots have preseason star Kristian Wilkerson on the practice squad if another receiver is needed at game time.
Of course, the New England passing attack always utilizes running backs and with steady and sure-handed veteran James White and the explosive J.J. Taylor, they have options to pressure opposing linebackers with passes to the backs.
Creating mismatches is what New England will do. The two (or even three) tight end offenses, play-action off the strong running game, motion, screens, and bunch formations should be back in the offense with quarterback Mac Jones behind the wheel. Last year the offense was unwatchable most times with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels trying to run the Tom Brady offense for Cam Newton.
The Miami Dolphins are very familiar with the Patriots and their scheme with head coach Brian Flores having been a long-tenured Patriots defensive assistant and coordinator. Miami defensive coordinator Josh Boyer spent 13 seasons in New England.
The Dolphins rolled to a 10-6 record last year due in large part to the ball-hawking defense. Utilizing the 2019 Patriots defensive strategy, they were 20th in yards allowed but just 6th in points allowed. They led the NFL in turnovers (29) with 18 interceptions. Miami led the NFL with third-down efficiency last year with the defense allowing only a 31.2% conversion rate, also best in the NFL.
Miami is strong in the trenches with 2019 first-round draft pick Christian Wilkins a budding superstar. Former Patriots lineman Adam Butler is there to provide inside pass rush and veteran Emmanuel Ogbah led the team in sacks with nine last year. Second-year nose tackle Raekwon Davis is the run-stuffer of the bunch. Rookie edge rusher Jaelan Phillips will be expected to provide pass rush on third down.
This offseason the Dolphins surprisingly shed linebacker and captain Kyle Van Noy but that was due to their comfort with their young linebackers. Patriots fans know Elandon Roberts and he’s joined by the athletic duo of Jerome Baker and Andrew Van Ginkel. Brennan Scarlett and Duke Riley provide strong special teams play and depth at linebacker.
Expect Mac Jones to attack Byron Jones (no relation) early and often on Sunday. Jones was a great zone cornerback at Dallas and Miami gave him a boatload of cash to come to South Beach. But Miami wants Jones playing man coverage, which is not his strength and still remains an odd signing.
The rest of the secondary is basically former Patriots. Justin Coleman is the slot cornerback. At safety, the Dolphins are playing two former Patriots cornerbacks in Eric Rowe and Jason McCourty. This secondary has sticky fingers and is basically a five cornerback secondary.
Key Match-up to Watch:
QB Mac Jones vs HC Brian Flores
The Patriots are starting a rookie quarterback in week one for the first time since Drew Bledsoe. Flores is aggressive and wants his defense to apply pressure on the quarterback and were second in the NFL in blitz percentage, sending extra rushers on 40.8 percent of defensive snaps in 2020.
Jones’ ability to read blitzes pre-snap and adjust the blocking will be tested early. Expect Flores to throw the kitchen sink at Jones and not worry about the risk of leaving his secondary on an island. If Jones is as good as hoped for, there could be some explosive big-play blitz-beaters to get the crowd out of their seats at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
–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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