Word of the game: "Control"
Opening week and the Patriots are lucky enough to play on Monday Night Football. Here are five things to look for during the game:
1. Patriots Defense vs Miami's Running Game - The Dolphins have had a slow start to their running game this preseason as all of their running backs averaged below the 4.0 yards/carry bench mark for the whole preseason. That said, their #1 back in rookie Daniel Thomas had an up-and-down preseason. In games 1 and 3 he was shut out and was unproductive. In games 2 and 4, he proved to be a strong enough weapon to warrant attention out of the back field. Reggie Bush looked like his typical self- a weapon out of the backfield, but an extremely inconsistent runner. Throw in Larry Johnson (yes, that Larry Johnson from 05-06 with the Chiefs) and the Dolphins have a large question mark in their backfield.
All three runners have the capability to be a game changer. None of them are able to do it on a consistent basis. However, it only takes one player to take over the game and the Dolphins have a stable of potential game changers. It's up to the Patriots defensive line (who have yet to play a down as a starting unit) to stop any chance of a run game from starting. Also, the Patriots' will need big plays from Dane Fletcher as last year's run stopper Brandon Spikes has missed a lot of the preseason.
Hopefully, the Patriots can stop the Dolphins' run game and force them to take to the air.
2. Patriots' Third Down Defense - Last season, the Patriots allowed a league worst 47% conversion rate on third down defense. The defense's inability to get off the field on a play other than a turnover was unsustainable and the defense needed a change. Now, the defense is operating in a much more obvious hybrid mode and they've gotten much stronger on the defensive line to prevent short yard gains. This preseason, they've allowed a 31% conversion rate, which seems like a great improvement. If the Patriots' can continue their level of success on third down into the regular season, the defense will be able to get the ball back to the offense much more quickly. Add in the Dolphins' 33% conversion rate on offense this preseason and the Patriots have a good opportunity to build third down confidence.
3. Patriots' Offensive Line - I've talked at great lengths about the Patriots' offensive line and their inability to protect Tom Brady in the big games as of late. Matt Light is getting older and speedier pass rushers are able to beat him more often. Dan Koppen has a tendency to get bulled over by larger defensive tackles. The right guard spot is a hole as Dan Connolly was a sieve with two good feet and new recruit Brian Waters is used to playing left guard. Add in that rookie Nate Solder might be the starting right tackle due to Sebastian Vollmer's back injury and Brady might be running for his life the whole game.
However, if Light plays well (he normally chooses to deteriorate at the end of the season), Logan Mankins is his usual self, Koppen helps Waters to the right and Solder plays out of his mind, then the offensive line might not miss a beat. However, it's unlikely for all of those cards to fall into place at the same time so watch for Brady to get hit a couple times.
4. Tom Brady's Accuracy - It's not a secret that the Patriots' go as the offense goes. In order for the team to set the tone and pace against the Dolphins, the offense needs to be gunning on all cylinders. This preseason, it seems as if Brady's only been able to get on the same page as Aaron Hernandez. Chad Ochocinco, Deion Branch, and Rob Gronkowski have all had quiet preseasons and Wes Welker will have to be his usual self on the field. Brady's accuracy has been questionable this preseason and has been overthrowing or underthrowing most of his passes. He has appeared timid as if he'd rather put the ball in the dirt than have the slightest chance of a defender getting near the ball which, while not bad in intent, makes it nearly impossible for the receivers to make the play.
Last preseason, Brady was throwing at a 74% completion rate. This preseason, he threw 56%. That's worth noticing and is something that has to be rectified if the offense is to put any points on the board.
5. Patriots' Run Offense - This point goes along with Brady's accuracy. The Patriots need to control the ball on offense. Brady can spread the field, but it's up to the run game to deserve snaps on offense and take advantage of the opportunities presented. I'm of the mind set that the ball should be in the hands of the player who can do the most with the ball- and the majority of the time it's Brady. However, when defenses drop back seven or eight players into coverage, it's the run game that should take advantage and pick up the yards given by the defense. The run game must keep the Dolphins' defense honest and prevent them from copying the Jets' strategy in the playoffs of dropping back every player into coverage.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis will play his normal role as workhorse and Danny Woodhead should see time as an additional third down weapon and blocker. Stevan Ridley could see time as a spell to both BJGE and Woody and could prove to be a valuable weapon. Ridley is a triple threat as a runner, blocker, and receiver so having him on the field allows Brady to call audibles and take advantage of what is presented.
I'm ready for Monday night. In order for the Patriots' to win, they'll have to control the line of scrimmage on both sides, by stopping the run on defense and preventing the pass rush on offense. They'll have to control the ball on offense, while keeping the opposing defense honest and spread wide.
Here's to a new season!