Patriots

3 keys for the Patriots to beat the Dolphins in Week 1

The Patriots' running game might end up being more of a factor than Mac Jones, while New England's defense could (and may need to) feast on Miami's offensive line in Week 1.

Patriots Damien Harris
Damien Harris. Winslow Townson/AP Images
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Whatever happened with the rest of the 2020 season, the Patriots at least made sure to get the year started off right with a physical win over the Miami Dolphins in Week 1 last year.

2021’s new-look New England squad will look to kick things off the same way against the division-rival Dolphins Sunday afternoon.

All eyes will, of course, be on Mac Jones, the exciting rookie quarterback who has Patriots fans dreaming big as he heads into his first NFL start. A big debut performance could crank that Rookie of the Year buzz up to a fever pitch.

But with Jones facing his first real NFL test, his supporting cast — especially the offensive line and running backs — could prove far more important than the first-round pick’s arm.

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On the other side of the ball, the Patriots’ pass rush has the potential to dominate the Dolphins up front, which would be great news for a secondary that has some question marks coming into the season.

That said, New England also has to make sure the one Miami playmaker that can singlehandedly ruin this home opener doesn’t do just that.

Here are three big points of emphasis the Patriots should keep in mind Sunday afternoon.

Make life easier on Mac Jones by running the ball — a lot.

Before you get too enthralled with the idea of Mac Jones throwing for 300 yards in his NFL debut remember this: the Patriots didn’t need a great passing offense to beat the Dolphins in Week 1 last year, and they shouldn’t need it Sunday, either.

Led by Cam Newton, the Patriots rushed for 217 yards and three touchdowns, owning the line of scrimmage and racking up several chunk plays on the ground.

The fact that Newton is no longer here doesn’t mean that plan has to change. In fact, with Jones starting his first NFL game and the Dolphins secondary being as strong as it is — they allowed the second-fewest passing touchdowns (21) and picked off the most passes in the NFL (18) in 2020 — establishing the ground game should be a major point of emphasis against the more middle-of-the-road run defense.

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The Patriots’ offensive line is even stronger than it was last season with Trent Brown manning the right side of the line and Isaiah Wynn healthy. The team has a versatile stable of backs led by Damien Harris, who could be in line for a breakout season in his first year as a full-time starter. Why not use them?

Obviously, Jones will have to throw the football at some point for the Patriots to run their offense smoothly. But that task will become far easier if New England knows it can lean on its ground game early and if they can hold a lead late in the game.

Take advantage of Miami’s offensive line problems

The Dolphins might have starting left tackle Austin Jackson back for Sunday’s game after the team removed him from the COVID-19 reserve list. But it’s hard to say if he’ll play Sunday after not having practiced all week.

That’s not a good situation for any team, and it’s especially a problem when your team has to go up against the likes of Matthew Judon, Kyle Van Noy, and Josh Uche that week.

The Patriots’ edge-rushing group has already run roughshod over its competition throughout the preseason, with Judon looking like possibly the best player on the entire team thus far. Uche isn’t far behind, almost singlehandedly destroying the New York Giants in joint practices and Preseason Week 3.

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Just imagine what they’d do to a less-than-100-percent Jackson or whatever backup tackle theoretically might have to slot in for him.

Thing is, New England might actually need its pass rush to dominate to cover up for other issues.

With Stephon Gilmore out of the lineup, the team could be looking at a revolving door opposite J.C. Jackson to see who can handle corner duties on the defense’s left side. Jalen Mills has been the first man up for much of training camp, but he’s been working through an ankle injury that kept him out of Thursday’s practice, making his availability for Sunday somewhat less than assured. (He attended Friday’s practice but was a limited participant.)

The Patriots can’t afford too many more issues at cornerback and will already have their work cut out defending DeVante Parker, Mike Gesicki, and Jaylen Waddle.

Taking advantage of the Dolphins’ own problems on the offensive line will make those pass-catchers, and Miami’s entire offense, less threatening.

Tackle soundly — and do not give up contain.

Of course, the Patriots can’t be expected to be perfect. Every team is going to miss tackles every game.

But New England needs to tackle as if they can’t afford to miss them on Sunday because they might not be able to.

Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa isn’t an electric runner of the football, but he is strong and can be difficult to bring down. When the Patriots succeed in making him hold onto the football longer than he wants to, they need to get him on the ground.

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If they don’t, the former Alabama quarterback has more than enough athleticism to break contain and either make a play down the field with his arm or pick up yards with his legs. Tagovailoa didn’t have a ton of rushing yards last year (109 total in 10 games), but he still picked up 13 first downs and three scores on the ground. Keeping him in the pocket and forcing him to beat the Patriots from there will be essential.

Then, there’s Waddle.

Who knows how much he’ll get the ball and how he’ll touch it in his first NFL game? But his cartoonish speed, acceleration, and open-field ability make him hardly less of a threat to score every time he touches the ball than a Tyreek Hill.

The Patriots cannot afford to take poor angles or fail to wrap up with Waddle, and they must ensure there are always multiple defenders ready to corral him when he catches short throws in space (screens, crossing routes, etc.).

The possibility of Waddle returning punts or kickoffs additionally means New England’s coverage units must be on the highest of alerts. Stay in coverage lanes, don’t over-pursue, and don’t gamble if you find yourself in the open field alone with him.

Even as a rookie, the uber-explosive Crimson Tide playmaker might be the most dangerous player Miami has. New England needs to limit his chances to prove it Sunday.

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