Both the Patriots and Dolphins look a good deal different heading into Sunday’s Week 1 matchup than they did coming into last year’s season-opening affair, which New England won 21-11.
Neither of the starting quarterbacks from that game remains on their respective teams, who will now start Mac Jones (Patriots) and Tua Tagovailoa (Dolphins).
A few players swapped teams, with Kyle Van Noy, Ted Karras and Davon Godchaux coming to Foxborough while Jason McCourty and Adam Butler headed to sunny Miami.
But the Patriots no doubt will be looking to achieve the same result as last year: start off their season 1-0 against their division rival.
Here are a few Dolphins players Bill Belichick’s crew will need to focus on stopping — or exploiting — in order to make that happen.
Big wideout DeVante Parker remains the Dolphins’ most well-known threat among the team’s traditional wide receivers. But Gesicki might in truth be the Dolphins’ most dangerous pass-catcher, especially as far as the Patriots are concerned.
The fourth-year tight end out of Penn State has increased his catches, receiving yards, and touchdowns in every NFL season he’s played. Last year, he was second on the team in receptions (53) and receiving yards (703) behind only Parker and led the team in receiving touchdowns.
Gesicki’s combination of size (6-feet-6-inches, 250 pounds) and exceptional athleticism make him a walking mismatch at tight end in a similar mold to Kansas City’s Travis Kelce. The Dolphins exploited this last year by lining the big tight end up in the slot more than any other position and letting him feast on overmatched safeties and linebackers or find space down the seams.
The Patriots have two pretty good coverage safeties in Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips, who won more battles than he lost against Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry in training camp practices. But it’s still a lot to ask of either McCourty or Phillips to cover Gesicki one-on-one too often.
Also, New England should try to keep Kyle Dugger, who struggles to cover tight ends, as far away from Gesicki as humanly possible on most plays.
No matter who sticks him, expect Tua Tagovailoa to look Gesicki’s way often: the second-year quarterback targeted Gesicki 43 times in 10 games last season (second only to Parker’s 44 targets).
Justin Coleman/Dolphins’ slot cornerbacks
The Dolphins defense ranked sixth in DVOA against the pass last season, according to Football Outsiders, and their secondary may be better this year with Xavien Howard and Byron Jones representing one of the best cornerback duos in the league, and former Patriots Jason McCourty and Eric Rowe patrolling at safety.
Getting the ball downfield to Nelson Agholor or up the seams to the tight ends Henry and Smith — the Dolphins especially play well against tight ends — could be a tough proposition this week as a result.
But if there’s one point New England can attack in the secondary, it’s slot corner — the spot currently occupied by another ex-Patriot in Coleman.
The 2015 undrafted free agent played two seasons for New England before being traded to Seattle in 2017. Since then, he’s been a dependable, if not spectacular, player in the slot for the Seahawks and the Detroit Lions before signing with Miami this offseason.
2020 didn’t go that well for Coleman by the numbers, though. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed opponents to catch 38 of 45 targets against him (84 percent completion percentage) while giving up four touchdowns and a passer rating of 134.
While the Patriots likely won’t push their luck with the Dolphins’ outside corners (Howard especially) more than they have to, Jakobi Meyers (or Kendrick Bourne, when the Patriots move him inside) could make a meal out of Coleman in the slot and help Mac Jones keep the chains moving.
Then, in the red zone, Meyers could find himself a more important target than expected if he can win his matchups against Coleman — or whoever the Dolphins play at slot — than other pass-catchers can elsewhere.
Rookie wide receivers often struggle to make immediate impacts in the NFL as they acclimate to more complex offenses and don’t get quite as open as they used to in college.
But the explosive Waddle doesn’t need to know the Dolphins inside and out to change a football game, and he doesn’t require a ton of space to get loose, either.
The first-year receiver out of Alabama boasts a simply unfair combination of monstrous speed — he apparently had the fastest GPS-tracked speed of any college player in the country last year — and insane agility and acceleration, which helps him burst in and out of cuts so quickly defenders can’t stay with him.
This makes him exceptionally dangerous not just as a threat to take the top off the defense but also to turn a crack into a canyon if he catches the ball on a short crossing route or screen with room to run.
The idea of Jalen Mills or Jonathan Jones trying to chase him around a formation all day is not terribly encouraging.
What’s more, the Dolphins will likely use Waddle as a punt returner as well, which is something he excelled at in college.
Waddle’s raw playmaking ability in the return game will no doubt have Belichick and special teams coordinator Cam Achord preaching discipline and precision in kick coverage more than usual this week.
Defensively, the general idea is simple: don’t let Waddle get behind you, and don’t miss tackles when he’s in front of you. One mistake could end up meaning six points.
Brian Flores and the Dolphins will do everything they can to confuse Jones and force him to hold onto the football longer than he wants to.
If that plan works, Ogbah’s the main man the Patriots need to protect the rookie quarterback from.
The former Cleveland Browns first-round pick had the best year of his career in 2020, leading the Dolphins with 10 sacks and 66 quarterback pressures. He also batted four passes at the line of scrimmage last year, which is notable because Jones has had issues with balls being swatted down at points during the preseason.
New England certainly can (and should) run on Ogbah and the Dolphins defensive line, which lost two of its more stout run defenders (Godchaux and Van Noy) to the Patriots in free agency.
But on passing downs, Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown must be up to the task of giving Jones time to go through his progressions, with Ogbah as a primary focus.
Ogbah lined up primarily as an edge rusher on the defense’s left side last season, meaning he could see a fair among of work against the right tackle Brown. But the versatile pass-rusher also occasionally will drop inside as a defensive tackle to work against guards, meaning Michael Onwenu and Shaq Mason will need to be on alert as well.
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