The Patriots open up their 2020 season against the Miami Dolphins. They found out earlier this week that the opposing quarterback will be Ryan Fitzpatrick, a player the Patriots know all too well. They’ll also open up the season with a new starting quarterback of their own, as Cam Newton has the onerous task of being the next guy after Tom Brady’s 18 years of unprecedented levels of dominance. In addition to losing Brady several of the team’s longest-tenured veterans have opted out of the season, which creates a void in leadership on the defense. With the first six games of the 2020 NFL season being essentially a glorified preseason, the team will need to find their footing quickly.
The first step towards establishing themselves as an AFC playoff contender will be beating a Miami Dolphins team that is likely to finish dead last in the AFC East standings. Here’s how they can do it:
Take away the Dolphins ground game
The Patriots need to make this game as hard on the Dolphins as possible, so that means taking away their ground game. The Dolphins will be featuring Jordan Howard, Matt Breida, and Patrick Laird in their RB by committee, each providing their own unique challenge to stop. Shutting down Howard will be critical as he’ll take up the bulk of the carries while Breida provides a change of pace as a speed merchant and Laird being their 3rd down back.
By shutting down the Dolphins run game and putting them in long distance situations, that puts the Dolphins offense in Ryan Fitzpatrick’s hands. That strategy has been successful in the past, although Fitzpatrick has been able to win games on his arm against the team in 2015 and 2019. Expect the Patriots to crowd the box while leaving their corners on an island against the Dolphins receivers.
The Patriots aren’t particularly stout against the run and aren’t particularly deep at the interior DL and inside linebacker spots
Don’t allow Ryan Fitzpatrick to develop any rhythm
Fitzpatrick as a passer is very streaky, but when he’s able to develop a rhythm he’s been a difficult quarterback to stop. The Patriots don’t have the players to be able to create pressure without sending in extra rushers, so how they time and execute their blitzes will be important. The Dolphins offensive line will have two rookies in at left tackle and right guard, so expect the team to try to attack both players in the pass rush from the second level. Players like Chase Winovich and Josh Uche come to mind for trying to create pressure in those spots.
As mentioned earlier, the Patriots will likely have a lot of one-on-one coverage against the Dolphins receivers. Davante Parker’s career started slowly, but he’s the biggest obstacle to stop in that offense. I’m not so worried about the Dolphins receivers taking over the game, but the Patriots defense was vulnerable to tight ends and running backs in the passing game. The Patriots will also have to win their match-ups against the Dolphins tight ends, as Mike Gesicki caught the touchdown that set the Patriots’ 2019 season into disarray.
The key to stopping the Dolphins from being able to dictate match-ups is for the Patriots to speed up Fitzpatrick’s internal clock. If they can do that, there will be opportunities for the defense to not only turn the ball over, but score points.
Build Cam Newton’s confidence early
The Patriots on the other side of the ball will need their quarterback to develop an early rhythm. Josh McDaniels is one of the best play callers in the NFL and the team will have the element of surprise on offense since there’s no tape of Newton in this offense. It can be a double-edged sword since Newton has no game reps in this offense either. Expect McDaniels to find plays from Newton’s tenure in Carolina to try to get him going such as Run-Pass Options and QB Power Runs.
The best way to get him in rhythm will be to scheme up a few easy completions. James White, Devin Asiasi, and Julian Edelman could have opportunities in the middle of the field against the Dolphins linebackers and safeties. The Patriots will also need to finish drives in the end zone once they get into the red zone, because they can’t afford to leave Miami in the game.
X-Factors: RB James White/Rex Burkhead, LB Ja’Whaun Bentley
White is going to continue to have to be steady-eddy in the backfield as the Patriots are still figuring things out at the receiver and TE position. He presents Newton is a reliable target in the middle of the field or on the boundary against linebackers. If the Dolphins try to bring in an extra defensive back, the threat of a zone-read option could create some space in the run game for both White and Newton. Same story with Rex Burkhead when he’s in the game.
Bentley is now the man with the green dot, so he’s calling the plays for the defense and responsible for getting everyone lined up. His defense against the run and coverage against Howard and Laird will be critical for the team to get the Dolphins off the field. I could see him easily putting up 10+ tackles on the day if the defensive line does their job.