Week 1 Game Preview: Dolphins @ Patriots

Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
  • Date: Sunday, September 12
  • Time: 4:25 ET (21:25 UK Time)
  • Venue: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, MA
  • TV: CBS and NFL Gamepass

Acknowledgement:

Before we delve into this game preview, I would just like to thank and credit Colby Fauser of Patriots ATB, for his contributions and insights in putting together this Week 1 matchup article.

Expectations Going Into The Game

Patriots:

“After being a model of consistency for so long, the Patriots will be starting their third different opening day quarterback in as many years this Sunday. Offensively, I expect a return to the Patriots offense of old; a quick tempo attack that is balanced by the running game. I expect them to try to get the running game established early to afford Mac Jones an added layer of protection from throwing off of play action. If the Pats offense can stay on schedule and Mac Jones can avoid the big rookie mistakes, I expect them to be a fairly competent group this year. 

On the defensive side of the ball, the addition of Matt Judon and return of Dont’a Hightower has completely changed the composition of the front seven from the depleted group that was fielded a year ago. The absence of Stephon Gilmore cannot be understated, but the Pats catch a break as Will Fuller is still serving his suspension. While Gilmore is out, the Patriots defense will need to wed their pass rush perfectly with their pass coverage, as opposing offenses will try to pick on newcomer Jalen Mills early and often. 

I expect the Dolphins defense to give the Patriots offense some fits. They are a talented group and will make throwing outside the numbers especially difficult for the rookie QB. If Mac Jones can find consistent success in the middle of the field with his tight ends and slow receivers Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne, it will go a long way to determining this match up. If the Dolphins force Mac to consistently try to find success outside the numbers, the Patriots will be playing into the Dolphins strength. 

As for the Dolphins offense, I do expect there to be some trouble finding rhythm. The Dolphins offensive line was already a question mark before Austin Jackson was placed on the COVID reserve list. While his status for the game Sunday is yet to be determined, losing him would put an already shaky group into hot water before the game even started. The Patriots pass rush should be a matchup nightmare for every opponent this season and I look for them to start the season with a strong performance Sunday.”

-Colby Fauser

Dolphins:

It is quite the opposite for Miami. After years of mediocrity Dolphins fans are somewhat bemused about what to expect, going into a season a strong favorite as a playoff contender. Gone are the days of Chan Gailey’s archaic play-calling, with the new era of George Godsey and Eric Studesville bringing excitement over the possibility of a modernized attack. Last season the Dolphins thrived when they played up-tempo. The additions the Dolphins made this offseason highlight how speed will be an integral part of the 2021 Dolphins offense.

Where the Patriots emphasis will likely be to establish the run to help Mac Jones, it seems that the Dolphins’ offensive strategy is to pass to set up the run. Of course we will not see the full extent of Tua’s ability or the offense Week 1. Nevertheless, an opening game against a strong divisional rival will go a long way to answering some of the questions hanging over the franchise.

Aside from the addition of Jaelan Phillips the Dolphins front seven remains relatively unchanged. The shock cut of Bernardrick McKinney, a presumed leader of the defense and the answer to Miami’s problems stopping the run continues to leave fans perplexed by the move. Stopping the run was an area where the Dolphins particularly struggled last year, no game more evident than surprise Week 1 @ Patriots. In that game the Patriots rushed for 217 yards, averaging 5.3 YPC and 3 TDs. With Cam Newton no longer on the team and the Dolphins facing a more conventional pocket passer where the defense thrives, it will be essential to cut off the run game early on.

As Colby alluded to above how quickly the Dolphins can find rhythm on offense will determine the result of this game. Throughout preseason overall Tua and Miami impressed in moving the ball downfield effectively with consistency. This could very well be the first time since minicamp that Tua has most of his starting weapons at his disposal. It is possible that the disruption caused by injury to key skill players such as Albert Wilson, DeVante Parker and Preston Williams could result in the offense being a little out of sync to start the game.

Key Battles

Patriots:

“The biggest concern I have is Jalen Mills versus whoever he lines up on. While Gilmore spends his time on PUP, opposing teams will not often target JC Jackson or Jonathon Jones. This means Jalen Mills will be in for a very active six weeks. He must hold up and keep things in front of him for this defense to be successful. I expect a bit of a return of the “bend but don’t break” defenses for the Patriots. 

Last year the Pats were often beat by strong performances from opposing tight ends. Mike Gesicki has had strong performances against the Patriots in the past. I expect him to serve as the motor to the Dolphins passing attack. Throughout the preseason we saw Kyle Dugger cover opposing tight ends one on one with limited success. He always seemed to be in the correct position, but struggled to finish the plays. He got better as the preseason wore on but this is an area that he must continue to show growth in, especially this week against a talented tight end like Gesicki. With the expected success of the Patriots pass rush, taking away the safe and quick throws from Tua will be very important for the defense’s success.”

-Colby Fauser

Dolphins:

The Dolphins offensive line struggles are well documented. To make matters worse, it seems that the Dolphins will be without starting LT Austin Jackson who is out with COVID.

Jackson is not a world beater, and in fact during the preseason he was the worst on the line. Nevertheless, he was always the starter. Despite the versatility on the line, it doesn’t appear that the Dolphins have a clear contingency. To many it seems obvious to start Liam Eichenberg at LT, the position he played at Notre Dame. However, Eichenberg has stated this week that since camp started he has only taken a few snaps at LT.

Jesse Davis has in the past struggled switching to the left side of the line and will likely start RT. Thus, it seems that Greg Little is the presumed starter. Regardless of who is the starter, the offensive line will need to be well alert of the improved Patriot’s pass rush.

Tua v Mac

Patriots:

“Tua showed signs of progression as the year wore on last year. He has certainly looked like a different QB in the preseason. He is a dynamic playmaker when things are going his way. I am concerned about the offensive line keeping him clean. I cannot stress enough how much of a problem Uche and Judon are going to be for opposing offenses this year. The addition of old friend Kyle Van Noy and COVID opt-out Dont’a Hightower further boosts this group up front. If Tua is provided time, I believe he could be in for a strong day in the office, if his line proves to be porous I think he may be starting the season off on the wrong foot. 

Mac has shown all the correct intangibles to be a successful NFL quarterback….against backups and the vanilla looks of preseason football. The Giants supposedly threw the kitchen sink at him in joint practices and Mac had incredible success against them. Mac’s intellect for the game of football has been regularly touted as his most impressive talent. He’ll need to be at his best Sunday to keep himself healthy and keep the offense moving. I expect Flores to try multiple looks and Mac will be responsible for setting his protections. One misidentification will lead to free rushers and potential negative plays for the Patriots.

I expect the Pats to play a safe game plan with him that loosens the reins a little bit. The last thing they want is Mac dropping back 40 times against the Miami defense. This will be a fun rivalry to watch for the next few years. If each team has what they believe they have in their young QB’s, it could be a rivalry we watch for the next decade. Either way, chapter one is Sunday and will go a long way to establishing the narrative of the story.”

-Colby Fauser

Dolphins:

All of the pre-draft projections of Mac Jones being the ideal system QB makes him the perfect fit in New England. From a somewhat unconventional Patriots offense in 2020, they are back in familiar territory. While I am not disputing Jones’ ability throwing the ball or his mental intellect for the game, let us not forget who he is facing. Bill Belichick is notorious for causing rookie QBs to struggle. Since he took over in Foxborough he is 21-6 when facing a rookie QB. Tua had no such issues last season leading his team with a pair of rushing touchdowns to win 22-12.

However, outside of Belichick, it is very arguable that it is the defensive system of Brian Flores and Josh Boyer that would cause the most trepidation to a young rookie QB entering his first game in the NFL.

Justin Herbert had a fantastic, record breaking rookie season winning Rookie of the Year. A 4.01 GPA student and the winner of the “Academic Heisman”, Herbert is no slouch when it comes to his intellect for the game. However, the pre-snap movement around the line of scrimmage caused Herbert and several other veteran QBs nightmares. Being in New England, Jones will have an advantage under Belichick in what to expect against this defense. Nevertheless, I foresee Jones’ NFL debut being a baptism of fire and a very long afternoon indeed.

As for Tua enough has been said about last season, his development over the offseason into the preseason. Now is finally the time for him to showcase his abilities. Everything seems set for him to make a big jump in the NFL. As for this game, Tua’s experience and familiarity in the NFL, along with improved mechanics and weapons make him the better QB of the two. No doubt.

Keys to Success

Patriots:

“As mentioned above I believe this game is going to come down to who can control the line of scrimmage. For the Pats, getting the running game going early and protecting their young QB will be the key to the game. If the Patriots can force Flores to play a bit left handed on defense, it will go a long way to determining this outcome. Damien Harris must find success running the ball to keep the offense on schedule and keep Jones from facing many third and long situations against this Miami defense.

Defensively the Pats must show improvement from their porous run defense a year ago; that starts up front with ex-Dolphin Davon Godchaux establishing a point of attack in the run game. The Secondary will need all the help it can get in handling the Dolphins reworked receiving corp and that starts with the pass rush. If the Patriots can make Tua uncomfortable and rush some throws they may be able to force a key turnover or two.”

-Colby Fauser

Dolphins:

To anybody thinking that this game will be an easy win, think again. However, if the Dolphins can do the following then we will be in for a good afternoon.

  1. Stop the Run– As simple as it sounds and as relevant as it may be in any game, if Miami cannot stop the run, starting the season 1-0 will be very difficult. We know that the Patriots will be set up to run the ball first with Damien Harris alleviating some of the pressure against Mac Jones. Take the layer of protection away and exploit any first game mistakes from the rookie.
  2. Consistent Pass Rush– The Patriots offensive line is their best positional group. Last season PFF ranked them the third strongest unit in the league. Strong pass protection and a solid run game is the ideal situation for a young rookie pocket passing QB. The Dolphins pass rush must do everything they can to put as much pressure as they can in Jones’ face with multiple looks.
  3. Discipline- Takes no talent. Everybody knows that a Bill Belichick team does not make silly mistakes. Thankfully for Miami neither does Brian Flores. Since Flores took over in 2019, the Dolphins and Patriots are the two least penalized teams in the league. Having just watched the Cowboys & Bucs combine for 19 penalties for 161 yards, any such performances by Miami will only lead to defeat. Do not beat yourself.

For a more in-depth analysis into the keys to this game, go and check out Chris Spooner’s recent article.

Injury Concerns

Patriots:

“The Pats enter this game relatively healthy outside of the massive loss of Stephon Gilmore. Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith are expected to play. The Patriots love their 12 personnel groupings and having both big offseason acquisitions healthy will be key to their offensive game plan. They just have to hope both stay healthy throughout the game. 

In years past the Patriots have used the first few games as an extended preseason; getting reserve players snaps and getting starters some series off as conditioning is often still a work in progress. With the makeup of the schedule (late bye week) and the potential to be in a playoff race at the end of the season, it will be interesting to see how Belichick approaches this. Resting guys early may help through the grind of getting to a week 14 bye, while losing any game early due to resting players may bite them in the back come December. “

-Colby Fauser

Dolphins:

At long last it seems that Miami have finally caught a break with injuries at the right time. It appears that the Dolphins will only be without Preston Williams, Austin Jackson and Adam Shaheen. As for New England, it seems that starters Jalen Mills and Nelson Agholor are questionable to feature. With the Patriots without Mills and Gilmore, while the Dolphins receivers are healthy, if Tua is afforded some protection by the line, the offense can roll. That is a big IF.

Score Predictions

Patriots:

“I may be drunk on the Patriots Kool-Aid but I do expect them to field a competitive team this year. The struggles of a Cam Newton offense will no longer be hanging over the offense and the hope of a young QB has us convinced that better days are on the horizon. Interestingly, the biggest factor in the game may well be who the Patriots kicker is. If Nordin is our guy going forward, I expect this game to have a unique score due to some missed PAT’s and field goal attempts on the Patriots side. Something like 28-26 Dolphins could be right. If Folk is elevated from the practice squad and plays in place of Nordin I think the Pats win a nail biter 27-24.”

-Colby Fauser

Dolphins:

In what could be a very defensively dominated game, not having certainty over your place kicker is not ideal to say the least. Thankfully though the Dolphins and Jason Sanders have no such issues. While I remain confident that Miami can pull of the win, as Dolphins fans we remain scarred by past experiences in Foxborough. Over the pat 20 years the Patriots have lost only 3 times in their home openers. Nevertheless I see Miami coming out on top 23-13. Check out the rest of the Dolphins ATB writers’ predictions below.

Hussam Patel- 21-20 Patriots

Matt Serniak- 27-23 Dolphins

Chris Spooner – 28-17 Dolphins

Rishi Desai- 24-16 Dolphins

Jared Vandermyde- 30-17 Dolphins

Tanner Elliott- 17-13 Dolphins

Tyler DeSena- 23-17 Dolphins

Previeweing Dolphins v. Patriots

Conclusion:

Once again I would just like to thank Colby for his help and insights throughout this article. Be sure to go and follow him on Twitter. The wait is over. The NFL regular season has begun and now we are hours away from real Dolphins football back in our lives. An old foe with a different feel and a different dynamic within the division. A lot of uncertainty has circulated over the past 9 months, but also lot of excitement and hope for the future. Now is the time for answers. As you sit there eagerly waiting for Sunday’s game be sure to go and check out the latest Around the Block-Miami Dolphins podcast. Fins Up!

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