When the Patriots Run – Edge: Patriots
Despite a very bumpy preseason, the Patriots have the ability to move the ball on the ground and that’s the offense’s strength. Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris both have the tools to be productive between tackles, and the Dolphins’ defense was just average (110 yards per game, 14th) and halted the run in 2021. The troubles for New England during the Pre-seasons started up front, where the new offensive line had difficulty transitioning to some of the outer zone blocking schemes that are being implemented. With very few exceptions, those games were disasters during the preseason, but Bill Belichick isn’t going to be persistent on games that weren’t productive and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Stevenson and Harris used on some of our gap runs, as we’ve seen produce a lot in the recent past. The Dolphins front is solid with Christian Wilkins, Raekwon Davis and Emmanuel Ogbah protecting linebackers Jerome Baker and Elandon Roberts, so it won’t be easy, but the Patriots should find ways to be more productive on the ground in the opener.
When the Patriots come around – Edge: Dolphins
The 2021 Dolphins also averaged pass defenses, ranking 16th in the league and allowing nearly 228 yards per game. But a closer look reveals a runner-up who finished ninth overall by allowing just 6.4 yards per pass. Miami was also able to put pressure on the passer, finishing seventh in sacks per pass attempt. Those numbers will pose problems for a Patriots attack that has struggled to press the ball down and protect the passer all summer. Mac Jones hasn’t been feeling well since training camp began and that’s largely down to shabby protection. The offensive line, which now features Trent Brown on the left tackle and Isaiah Wynn on the right, wasn’t strong at camp or during preseason games. Wynn is also struggling with an injury that has cost him some time this summer. Jones has a few options to work with in the passing game, including newcomer DeVante Parker. The former Dolphin gives Jones a target with a larger catch radius, and Miami will be without Byron Jones from the No. 2 corner, who starts the season with PUP. The Dolphins still have Xavien Howard, one of the best corners in football, so life won’t be easy. Protection will be key, and the Dolphins have been generating a lot against the Patriots lately, especially in Miami.
When the Dolphins Run – Edge: Dolphins
Miami was terrible at leading the ball in 2021 except against the Patriots. In their Week 18 encounter in Miami, the Dolphins fought their way nearly 200 yards across the ground against a suspect running defense for New England. First-year coach Mike McDaniel wants to lead the ball with freshmen Chase Edmonds and Raheem Mostert while taking the same approach the Patriots are trying to combine with looking outside the zone. Both have plenty of pace and can load the edges of defense, and while the Patriots appeared to have improved last season from their shaky play in running defense a year ago, it will be a tough test. The Dolphins also improved their offensive line, adding left tackle Terron Armstead and center Connor Williams via free agency. McDaniel wants to be balanced and will likely give his back plenty of chances to get going and given the speed the Dolphins possess in the passing game, adding extra bodies in the box to slow things down won’t be easy.
When the Dolphins Come Around – Edge: Dolphins
Much has been written about the improvements Miami has made in the off-season, and most of it has revolved around the arrival of Tyreek Hill. Miami also added Cedrick Wilson, a talented third receiver who joins Jaylen Waddle, who has had a fantastic rookie season in which he caught 104 balls. The Dolphins also have some solid tight ends in Mike Gesicki and Durham Smythe. So the pieces are in place for Miami to have an explosive offense with McDaniel coming from San Francisco and installing the same Mike Shanahan offense that the Patriots are having trouble establishing. But all of those potential improvements depend on the game of third-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who has struggled to stay healthy and get the ball consistently downfield. However, he was effective against the Patriots, as suggested by his 3-0 career grade. In general, the Dolphins didn’t ask too much of him, but he was accurate, especially on sloping stretches, and avoided mistakes for the most part. If he does so in the opener, Miami should find success through the air given his range of weapons.
Special Teams – Edge: Patriots
Both teams are solid in kicking play, with Miami’s Jason Sanders (kicker) and Thomas Morstead (punter) taking on New England’s Nick Folk and Jake Bailey. All are proven veterans who have found success in the league. Sanders missed eight of 31 field goals a year ago, but four of those came from more than 50 yards. He was also 34 out of 35 on PATs. Folk enjoyed another spectacular season at Foxborough, scoring 36 of 39 field goals at the age of 36. Neither team scored much in the second leg and in warm and humid conditions kick return play is unlikely to have an impact as touchbacks are expected. The Patriots are trying to find a punt returner option, with Myles Bryant and rookie Marcus Jones getting some chances in the summer. Hill or Waddle will likely fill those duties for the Dolphins, so the Patriots surplus units will need to be sharp. After a season in which the Patriots struggled hard on special teams, Bill Belichick added some youth to the mix with Brenden Schooler and DaMarcus Mitchell, and both featured prominently throughout the summer. Expect the Patriots to improve a lot in the third period.