A different decade began for the New England Patriots on Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.
It began with a sea of empty blue seats, a No. 1 jersey behind center, and a 21-11 win over the Miami Dolphins.
Here’s a touchdown of observations from what went into the 2020 opener for New England.
Newton goes by ground in Patriots premiere
It had been 366 days since Cam Newton started an NFL game. The former league MVP, derailed by a Lisfranc fracture during his final season with the Carolina Panthers, took the first snap for a first down on a zone read. There were more.
Newton kept the ball for 75 yards on 15 rushes as the guards pulled, and got his first touchdown on the ground since Oct. 28, 2018. There’d be another over the orange pylon after intermission. And even a fourth-and-inches conversion midway through the fourth quarter to set up a scoring plunge by Patriots running back Sony Michel.
Through the air, Newton went 15-of-19 passing. Brian Hoyer served as the backup quarterback to Newton. Jarrett Stidham was declared inactive 90 minutes before kickoff.
Gilmore revisits the Miami passing game
Dolphins wide receiver DeVante Parker had won the last round against Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore. He did so to the tune of seven of his eight catches for 117 of his 137 yards in Foxborough.
On Sunday, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year halted Parker short of the sticks on Miami’s initial drive to force a punt. Parker, battling a hamstring injury, had four receptions for 47 yards at halftime. But by then, Gilmore had an interception in hand while covering fellow Dolphins wideout Preston Williams. Gilmore’s first interception of 2020 arrived against the same quarterback as his first interception of 2019 — ex-Buffalo Bills teammate Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Gilmore was called for defensive pass interference twice in the final frame.
Taking returns for New England
A foot issue sidelined Gunner Olszewski for the final practice of the week, and New England’s leading punt returner from a campaign ago would be placed on injured reserve by Saturday evening.
Olszewski had fielded 20 punts for 179 yards as an undrafted rookie from Bemidji State. In his absence, that role under Patriots assistant coach Troy Brown would be taken on by offseason signing Damiere Byrd. But Byrd’s first return would be muffed and recovered after a collision. He stayed on the sideline for the next punt yet was back for a fair catch on the third.
Deep for the New England kickoff unit on Sunday was rookie free agent J.J. Taylor. The 5-foot-6, 185-pound running back out of Arizona had been promoted from the practice squad earlier in the week. Taylor would get get a look from scrimmage, as well, totaling 32 yards on a handful of touches.
Eluemunor starts anew at right tackle
Jermaine Eluemunor resided on the inactive list for six games last season after coming over in a trade with the Baltimore Ravens. But the reserve guard and swing option would be tendered $2.133 million as a restricted free agent. And by opening day, Eluemunor would be on the line in place of starting right tackle Marcus Cannon, who opted out.
Sunday marked the fourth career start for the product of Lackawanna College and Texas A&M.
Sixth-round rookie Michael Onwenu operated as an eligible sixth blocker early for the heavy New England offense.
Edelman, Harry draw the top target shares
Last season, Julian Edelman found himself the intended target on more than 25 percent of the passes thrown by the Patriots. The 34-year-old wide receiver would get the initial pass thrown Sunday. It fell out of his hands down the middle as Dolphins safety Bobby McCain closed in. But Edelman would secure the next one at the start of the second quarter. It was the 600th of his Patriots tenure. He’d close the game out with five receptions on seven pass attempts while also moving the chains on end-around rush up the right sideline.
N’Keal Harry had five receptions on six throws for the Patriots, but the 2019 first-round pick fumbled into the end zone for a touchback with a minute remaining in the third quarter. The score at the time read 14-3. It soon read 14-11 as the Dolphins traveled 80 yards for eight points.
No other New England wide receiver drew a pass. Edelman and Harry combined for 96 of Newton’s 155 air yards.
A defense of moving parts for the Patriots
The Patriots selected linebackers Michigan’s Josh Uche and Alabama’s Anfernee Jennings in the second and third rounds of April’s draft. Uche would be among New England’s inactives on Sunday. As for Jennings, he would be inside depth behind veterans Ja’Whaun Bentley and Brandon Copeland while John Simon and Chase Winovich started on the edges. But the base defense was not often the base defense.
A 6-foot-3 cornerback convert in Joejuan Williams matched up with Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki. Top draft choice Kyle Dugger out of Division II Lenoir-Rhyne rotated into the secondary. Top nickelback Jonathan Jones spent time at safety. The same held true for captain and corner Jason McCourty.
The moving parts continued as defensive back Adrian Phillips, once an All-Pro on special teams for the Los Angeles Chargers, dropped into the box and collected an interception before intermission. No points would come of the turnover, as kicker Nick Folk missed a 45-yard attempt wide right and the Patriots headed into the locker room. But no points would come of Miami’s last possession of regulation, either, as cornerback J.C. Jackson sealed the AFC East encounter with a pick in the end zone.