The long wait is finally bound to come to an end on Sunday: football will return to Gillette Stadium as the New England Patriots will host the Miami Dolphins for both teams’ regular season opener. The two AFC East rivals are no strangers to each other — even more so with ex-Patriots assistant coach Brian Flores having taken over the Dolphins’ head coaching position in 2019 — so their Week 1 meeting should be an intriguing battle between old and familiar foes.
In order to come away victoriously, New England will have to win its matchups — and the following could have an especially big impact on the game’s outcome:
Stephon Gilmore vs. DeVante Parker
When the Patriots beat the Dolphins 43-0 in Week 2 of last year, Stephon Gilmore was arguably their best player on either side of the ball: the All-Pro cornerback shut down Miami’s top two wide receivers, DeVante Parker and Preston Williams, from start to finish and did not allow a single reception on five targets while also registering an interception.
The Dolphins get their collective revenge in Week 17, thanks to Parker winning his one-on-ones against the Patriots’ top cornerback on the majority of occasions. Parker eventually finished the game with eight catches on 11 targets for a combined 137 yards. He played a tremendous role in the Dolphins’ upset victory in Foxborough.
All in all, though, both Gilmore and Parker had tremendous seasons in 2019 and are entering the new campaign as their teams’ top options at their respective positions. It would therefore make sense to see them go against each other on a regular basis again on Sunday — even if the Patriots could opt to have Gilmore on Williams for the majority of snaps again, like they did during their first meeting with Miami last year.
If Gilmore lines up across Parker, however, New England’s CB1 will need to make sure to bring his A-game. If he does, the Dolphins’ passing attack could be in for a long day.
Cam Newton vs. Miami’s interior defensive line
Nobody outside of One Patriot Place knows what to expect from Cam Newton in his first game as New England’s starting quarterback, but it would not be a surprise to see the team employ the former league MVP similarly to how he was used in his heyday: as a true dual-threat that is capable of challenging teams not just through the air but on the ground as well.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels using this approach in Newton’s first game as a Patriot would not be surprising if his unit attacks like Pats Pulpit’s own Taylor Kyles projected earlier this week: by trying to get to the perimeter on running plays in order to force the Dolphins to use lighter boxes. Those, in turn, would create space for Newton to exploit on quarterback draws or other scripted runs. Him challenging the interior of Miami’s defensive line — or the lack thereof — could therefore be a key part of this approach.
Jermaine Eluemunor vs. Kyle Van Noy and Emmanuel Ogbah
While it remains to be seen how the Dolphins like to use their offseason acquisitions at the linebacker position, it would not be a surprise if they opt to line up Kyle Van Noy and Emmanuel Ogbah over Patriots right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor quite frequently: both players saw most of their action on the left side of defensive formation last year, and it seems very possible that Miami defensive coordinator Josh Boyer envisions a similar usage for them heading into the season opener.
This means that Eluemunor would start his career as the Patriots’ right tackle with a formidable challenge ahead of him. The 25-year-old, who was elevated to a starting position following the opt-out of veteran Marcus Cannon, will have to block two veteran pass rushers who have proven themselves capable of putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks: Van Noy registered 7.5 sacks in 2019 as New England’s number one disruptor, with Ogbah notching 5.5. in 10 games for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Eluemunor will have to show that he can handle both players’ speed around the edge, and that he can successfully communicate with the players surrounding him. Otherwise Cam Newton could repeatedly feel the heat from his right side.
New England’s inside linebackers vs. Ryan Fitzpatrick
Ryan Fitzpatrick finished the 2019 season as the Dolphins’ leader in both rushing yards (243) and touchdowns (4). While a lot of the yardage was created out of necessity behind a bad offensive line, the veteran surely knows how to make plays with his feet. The Patriots’ second-level defenders therefore have to be on high alert once the 37-year-old starts to take off.
That said, Fitzpatrick’s skills as a ball carrier are not why he is listed here. Instead, the Patriots’ inside linebackers play a vital role against him when it comes to defending the underneath zones.
During the two teams’ last meeting, after all, Fitzpatrick made a living out of attacking the short middle of the field: 17 of his 41 pass attempts targeted the area between the line of scrimmage and 10 yards down the field, with 13 of them being completed for 106 yards. The ensuing passer rating of 91.8 may not be particularly outstanding, but the veteran successfully marched down the field by throwing methodical passes to the underneath zones.
The Patriots, therefore, have to find a way to cover those zones and force Fitzpatrick elsewhere with the football. Inside linebackers such as Ja’Whaun Bentley will be pivotal to this plan.
Patriots’ wide receivers vs. man-to-man coverage
“Miami is a team that we expect to play a lot of man-to-man coverage,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick during his media conference call on Friday.
Man coverage, of course, proved to be the team’s kryptonite last season. With the exception of Julian Edelman, New England’s pass catchers were unable to consistently get open when challenged throughout their patterns — something that will have to change in 2020 for the team to create any momentum through the air. The Dolphins present the first challenge in this regard, and it will be a formidable one.
Not only did the team add Byron Jones in free agency, it also has Xavien Howard as well as first-round rookie Noah Igbinoghene and Nik Needham available. Jones and Howard will likely go up against N’Keal Harry and Julian Edelman, respectively, with the other two projected to take on New England’s third and fourth options Damiere Byrd and Jakobi Meyers.
The Patriots’ wide receivers finding ways to win their battles will be crucial lest the team wants to rely on its running backs or rookie tight ends to move the ball through the air.