By: Steve Balestrieri
Patriots safety Patrick Chung. (FILE:Icon/SMI)
The New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins kick off the 2011 Monday Night Football season with game one of two at 7 p.m. in Miami.
The Patriots off of a 14-2 but disappointing end to last year look to take further steps to ensure they play in Indianapolis in February. They have revamped their defense and are playing more of an attacking style of defense while cutting 8 players who at times either started or played a lot of snaps on defense. The Patriots brought in veterans Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco, Shaun Ellis and Andre Carter this off-season.
Miami is coming off of a disappointing season where Head Coach Tony Sparano was rumored to be on the block after a 7-9 season. The Dolphins lost both Ronnie Brown and Rickie Williams in their running game but brought in Reggie Bush this spring. But the big question remains at Quarterback. Chad Henne was woefully inconsistent last season and the team openly tried to bring in Kyle Orton from Denver. When that failed, the reins were handed back to Henne. The Fins will only go as far as Henne can carry them, their defense should be just fine but their offense will tell how far this team goes.
So with that in mind on to the matchups:
Patriots Running Game: The Pats running game last season was much improved last season with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead mixing things up quite a bit. The Patriots have brought in Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. Miami is strong against the run with Paul Solai in the middle with both Randy Starks and Kendall Langford on the ends. Karlos Dansby is very good against the run and makes plenty of stops.
I don’t think the Pats will rush Green-Ellis much in this one, just enough to keep the Fins honest. Their best bet is to run Woodhead on traps and delays right at Cameron Wake. Wake is a beast off the edge and his aggressiveness is what the Pats will target, trying to catch Wake up field and have Woodhead break one.
Patriots Passing Game: The Pats passing game hasn’t been a well-oiled machine during the pre-season. It has had spurts but overall, the timing has been off. Chad Ochocinco has had his problems being assimilated in the passing game and has struggled.
Tom Brady has plenty of weapons to throw the ball to, Ocho, Wes Welker and Deion Branch all will put pressure on Miami with Welker having an outstanding pre-season, he seems poised to have a big season. Welker claims to be in the best shape and 100% back from his injury.
The Dolphins can bring pressure from Wake and Koa Misi from the edge and the Patriots OL struggled all pre-season to keep the QBs upright. The big key here will be Matt Light and Logan Mankins giving Brady time to throw. The Dolphins secondary improved a lot last year. Vontae Davis and Sean Smith are fine corners and still improving. Expect them to take on Welker and Ochocinco to take away the underneath routes.
The big key to watch are the Patriots tight ends, both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez provide match-up nightmares for defensive coordinators. Gronkowski showed all summer he was near impossible to cover. With the Dolphins looking to disrupt the Patriots timing, the tight ends are poised to have big games. Brady will throw the tight end screen and the RB screens to Woodhead to keep the Fins honest.
Dolphins Running Game: Gone are Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams and Miami has brought in Reggie Bush and a rookie Daniel Thomas to handle the running game. The Fins also brought in Marc Colombo at RT and drafted Mike Pouncey at C.
But so far, the running game has struggled. The Patriots were vulnerable to the running game last year, but with Albert Haynesworth and Vince Wilfork in the middle backed by run stuffing MLB Brandon Spikes now healthy, teams are going to have a much harder time running on this defense.
I would expect Miami to try to run with Bush on the edge and make the Pats big bodies wilt in the South Florida heat. Don’t be shocked to see them go no-huddle either to keep the Patriots defense from substituting. But I expect the Pats to negate Miami’s running game.
Dolphins Passing Game: The Dolphins struggled in the passing game a year ago, Henne’s confidence was shaken and he made bad mistakes at key times that hurt the team. Miami is not without weapons in the passing game, Brandon Marshall (who’s given the Patriots fits) Davone Bess, Brian Hartline and TE Anthony Fasano all are talented and give Henne plenty of options.
The Patriots, literally were terrible against the pass last season, especially on third down. To combat this, Bill Belichick has totally revamped the pass rush. He brought in Haynesworth and Andre Carter from Washington,and Shaun Ellis from the Jets. Carter has looked outstanding in limited play thus far during the summer bringing pressure off the edge. The Pats also brought in sub-package edge rusher Mark Anderson in. They are now attacking much more and it should aid the pass rush as well.
With a healthy Leigh Bodden back at CB, this should help the pass defense immensely. Bodden and Devin McCourty give the Pats a great tandem and in sub-packages they’ve been sliding Bodden over to the nickel or ‘star’ slot. Kyle Arrington and rookie Ras-I Dowling should see some snaps. But the big question is at Safety where the team released both James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather. They are expecting Pat Chung to really step up this season and I expect Josh Barrett to get the other starting spot.
For the Dolphins, I expect them and every other team to do the same thing, attack the middle of the field. That is the Patriots biggest weakness in my opinion and an area that they’ve struggled in. Look for Henne to test the middle with both Marshall from the outside and Bess, who out of the slot is outstanding. Bess in particular will provide the matchup nightmare that Welker does in the NE offense. Until the Pats can shut down the middle, look for lots of teams to go there. Another area to watch is Bush on screens and into the flat. With the Pats new scheme of attacking, it will lend itself to this kind of play and Bush in open space is dangerous. The Pats may place someone to spy on Bush in obvious passing downs.
Special Teams: This facet of the game was a total nightmare for Sparano last season in Miami but the Fins do have a very good returner in Bess. P Brandon Fields is excellent as is K Dan Carpenter.
The Pats welcome back K Stephen Gostkowski from a second half injury last year and P Zoltan Mesko had a fantastic camp. The punt return duties should fall to Julian Edelman (Mr. August according to Mike Felger) but he finished behind only Devin Hester last season.
The Pats coverage units were very inconsistent this summer and wear bear watching in this one. It will be interesting to see if teams kick the ball out of the endzone or force opponents to run it out this year.
“X”-Factors: New seasons bring changes and both teams have plenty. Some things to watch, is Henne’s confidence. If they start slowly, will he melt or battle back. They will certainly try to get him in an early rhythm with short easy passes.
For the Patriots, gone are eight players who either started or played a lot of minutes from the defense. The new look defense has all yet to play together, will they be able to shut the Fins down? Will Chad Ochocinco get in tune with Brady and become a viable threat to the offense? Stay tuned…
Conclusions: The Patriots have revamped their defense and it speaks volumes about Bill Belichick. He doesn’t have a problem with cutting away draft picks, even high ones that he selected. It’s all about the performance on the field, not where you were selected in the draft.
I think they will try to come after Henne and force him into making mistakes. The Pats saving grace last season was turnovers with 38 for the defense. They can’t reasonably expect that number again, but with an improved pass rush, they can force the issue much more this season. Expect Carter to be a disruptor in the backfield. That being said, I would expect Bush and Bess to have some big plays during the game.
On offense, the Patriots will run at Cameron Wake and try to keep him guessing. Expect more of Woodhead than Green-Ellis. The passing game will have to stay short at first until they get people involved. Protecting Brady will be key, but I think both Hernandez and Gronkowski will have huge impacts in this game. Brady tosses a couple of red-zone touchdowns to Gronk and the Patriots will win the opener 28-14.