What to Watch, Key Match-ups, and Prediction as Patriots Take on the Dolphins

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – SEPTEMBER 13: Cam Newton #1 of the New England Patriots stands under center during the second half against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on September 13, 2020 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

What to Watch

Gameday Inactive List

The Patriots finished training camp relatively healthy with the exception of Stephon Gilmore. The Patriots placed him on the PUP list to start the season meaning Gilmore won’t see the field until at least week 7. That changed this past week during practice when both DB Jalen Mills and WR Nelson Agholor were added to the injury report. Both have been listed as questionable leading into the game. Losing either would be a blow to already thin position groups for New England.

Jalen Mills has been playing as CB2 behind JC Jackson while Jonathon Jones has been manning the slot. Mills was brought on in the offseason to play as a jack-of-all-trades piece in the defensive secondary and his unexpected role as CB2 has been viewed as a concern by many outside the team. Rookie Shaun Wade, who was acquired from the Ravens before the preseason finale, has played well throughout the preseason-leading to rave reviews from his teammates. If Mills is unable to go Wade may be in line to receive significant snaps in his NFL debut.

If Agholor can’t go, the entire complexion of the Patriots offense will change just hours before kickoff. Agholor’s ability to stretch the field is unique to the receiving room as the other guys on the roster all have similar short to mid range skill sets. The Patriots will be looking to generate success on the ground and control the middle of the field in the passing game during Mac Jones’ first NFL start. If Agholor can’t go and the Dolphins are able to play with an extra safety rolled up in the box, both of these coaching points will be a lot more difficult to execute.

Yodny Cajuste was the other Patriot listed on the injury report throughout the week. Listed on the roster bubble for much of camp, Cajuste made a late surge to the final roster as an extra swing tackle. While he is not a starter, having adequate depth along the offensive line would be beneficial to the Patriots early in the season. Agholor’s importance to the offense was discussed earlier in the preseason here: https://atbnetwork.com/2021/07/21/why-nelson-agholor-is-the-patriots-most-important-offseason-addition/?amp=1

With the Patriots elevating K Nick Folk from the practice squad on Saturday, expect rookie K Quin Nordin to wait at least another week before playing in his first NFL start.

Jonnu Smith’s Touches and Alignments

The Patriots played Smith sparingly in the preseason as injuries began to take their toll at the position. They also didn’t want to show their hand in how they plan to get Smith the ball. It’s been a poorly kept secret around 1 Patriots Place that Smith is going to be a queen piece on offense: lining up all over the field and getting a fair share of touches in a multitude of ways. During the peak of the Hernandez-Gronkowski pairing, Hernandez would get snaps as a traditional tight end, slot receiver, wide receiver, fullback, and halfback. Expect that to be the game plan with Smith as well. He has been lining up all over the place in training camp and has been a focal point in the offense. Smith is a threat to make something out of nothing every time he touches the ball. Expect the Patriots coaches to give him as many opportunities as possible to do so. It will be interesting to see how much of the playbook they want to reveal in Week 1 but don’t be surprised if Smith is second in touches at the end of the year only behind RB Damien Harris.

Mac Jones and Those Rookie Jitters

Of course. The ushering in of a new era is top of the national list of storylines for this game. While it will be exciting to watch Mac and how he performs now that the games count if the Pats execute on both sides of the ball he shouldn’t be required to be the storyline after the game. The offensive game plan will be set up in a way to protect him while also playing to his strengths. The Pats will focus on quick hitters early to loosen him up before beginning to work intermediate and deep shots into the game. Mac showed poise under pressure in the preseason and a veteran-level understanding of the offensive concepts he was asked to run. With Mac under center, the Patriots offense should return to its roots as a schedule-based attack: Mac will need to play smart and be decisive at the helm.

The attention paid to the Dolphins defense and their ability to throw the “kitchen sink” at Mac may be overstated. It would be shocking to see a rookie quarterback coached by Bill Belichick flustered by amoeba looks and movement across the line of scrimmage. During the joint practices with the Giants, Mac’s ability to decipher multiple looks, set his protections, and pick apart coverages was highly publicized and went a long way in earning him the starting job. To think that Mac went against vanilla looks the entire offseason and still won the starting job is incredibly short-sighted. The Dolphins will confuse him on occasion but this is not going to be a game where he gets completely fooled before the ball is even snapped. Expect him to show off the cerebral part of his game.

Kendrick Bourne’s Involvement

Bourne was minimally involved throughout live preseason action but showed nice chemistry with Mac Jones in practices. Bourne seems to have become an afterthought when discussing the Patriots offensive weapons. While Meyers may well be the best receiver of the group, expect Bourne to find success against the defense’s third and fourth coverage men. Bourne was a YAC monster in San Francisco and a first down machine to boot. It won’t be surprising to see him have a big game working the short to intermediate portion of the field.

Continued Growth of Second-Year Players

Second-year players Kyle Dugger, Josh Uche, Mike Onwenu, and J.J. Taylor provide a talented young core for the Patriots to grow with. All showed promise as rookies and will look to take the next step in their second seasons.

Kyle Dugger has quietly earned rave reviews from teammates, opponents, and former executives around the league. He played situationally last year but looks to step in as a full-time starter in place of the retired Patrick Chung (he even took Chung’s #23). He plays downhill and fast, after forcing violent collisions with the ball carrier. He was picked on in coverage last year and into this preseason before beginning to put it together between the Eagles and Giants games. If Dugger can find his place in coverage he will become a complete player alongside Devin McCourty to anchor the secondary.

Uche may have the most buzz around him entering his second season. He looked downright fantastic a year ago as a situational pass rusher and continued it with a strong offseason. Uche noted he spent time this offseason focusing on his strength and conditioning and looks the part. His already explosive game now has an added strength element that was lacking at times last year. Under the tutelage of Judon, the Patriots could have themselves a pair of bona fide pass rushers in the near future.

Onwenu very well may prove to be the steal of last year’s draft as he looks to replace Joe Thuney at left guard. Onwenu was used all over the line last year, starting at right tackle, left guard, and right guard, at an impressively high level. If anyone was to replace the former All-Pro at left guard, Onwenu seems to be the man for the job.

J.J. Taylor was a fun story last year but built on that momentum to the point of making Sony Michel expendable. While Harris will get the majority of carries and James White will continue to handle passing back duties, Taylor will get action as a change of pace back. Dubbed “Dion Lewis lite” by running backs coach Ivan Fears, Taylor has the chance to be a cult favorite in New England.

Key Match-ups

Patriots Revamped Linebacking Corps

A year after having a group that regularly featured safety Adrian Phillips, the Pats reloaded at the position. The return of Don’t’a Hightower, as well as the additions of Matt Judon and (return?) or Kyle Van Noy, have turned a weakness into one of the teams’ biggest strengths. The Dolphins were able to find success last year targeting the Patriots linebackers in coverage and running downhill against a soft rushing defense. This year should yield a very different result.

The Dolphins offensive line has not been considered a strength and has had further doubt cast on it thanks to starting left tackle Austin Jackson’s trip to the COVID reserve list. While Jackson was removed from the list on Saturday, his game-time status and efficiency in the event he does play, are yet to be determined. The Patriots defense features one of the deepest pass rushing groups of linebackers in the league this season. Any weakness on the Dolphins offensive line will be exploited by Judon, Van Noy, Hightower, Uche, and Winovich. The depth here allows the Patriots to continuously cycle fresh legs onto the field. With the questions facing the secondary, a potent pass rush will be crucial to disrupting Tua and the Dolphins attack.

The Patriots linebackers will also be tasked with stopping the intermediate range of the Dolphins passing attack, one that is usually led by talented TE Mike Gesicki. The overall improvement in talent for this group should boast better results than last year when Tua was able to utilize his tight ends and short passing game to pull away from the Patriots in the fourth quarter of their second meeting. While Phillips may not be asked to log a full game at linebacker anymore, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him playing down in the box in obvious passing situations. While they won’t be asked to cover the Dolphins wide receivers, the more success this group finds in rushing the passer, the easier the job will be outside for the Patriots corners. As long as the Pats are without Gilmore, the pass rush will need to find success to help out the guys on the backend. The success of the Patriots defense will be determined by this group.

As the Offensive Line Goes-The Offense Goes

As important as the linebacking corps is to the defense, the offensive line is equally important to the success of the offense. It will go a long way for the Patriots offensive success if this group can open up holes and get RB Damien Harris going early. The more success the Patriots find in the running game the easier they make it on Mac Jones. Harris is a talented back ready to show off his skill set to the league after injuries have hampered his first two NFL seasons. Keeping the Patriots offense on schedule and out of third and long situations is extremely important with a rookie under center.

It won’t be unexpected to see Mac hold the ball and try to decipher defenses after the snap. If this is the case, the offensive line has to hold up in pass pro as well. Keeping the young gun upright and comfortable in the pocket will allow him to settle in and find rhythm in the passing game. If the Dolphins get to Jones early and often, a few rookie mistakes might end up costing the Patriots the game.

Prediction

Patriots 27 Dolphins 17

These two teams know each other well. The game will be scrappy and tightly contested through the first half before the Pats pull in the second. I expect Van Noy to get some revenge for his unceremonious dumping this offseason while Hightower stabilizes a defense that often looked lost last year. Judon and Uche will harass Tua and force him into rushed decisions and errant throws. Mac will be asked to manage the game more than dominate it and put up modest numbers in an offense focused on ball control and playing smart.

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Colby Fauser

Passionate Patriots fan, current Intensive Care Nurse. Played ball through college under multiple coaches now in NFL ranks. Love the game and love teaching it. Hope to spread some knowledge and laughs through writing!

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