The New England Patriots are set to open up their 2021 season on Sunday, hosting the Miami Dolphins in what will serve as an early test for a couple of playoff hopefuls.
New England will enter Week 1 with a revamped roster, loading up on talent during an unusually busy period of free agency and making a first-round quarterback selection for the first time in 28 years. Miami, on the other hand, took a more Patriot-like approach to their offseason, picking their spots in free agency and maximizing the value of their draft picks.
Sunday will be the first glimpse into how each strategy will work. Has the talent gap been reduced from what we saw one season ago? Can the Patriots overcome the inexperience of much of their roster early on? Can the Dolphins continue to build on their positive momentum?
Those questions won’t be answered until the 4:25 p.m. ET kickoff. One question, however, regarding which individual matchups could dictate the outcome of the game, can be answered now. Let us take a look.
New England’s tight ends vs. Miami’s safeties
There has been a lot of time, money and resources put into these two units over the course of the last 18 months. The Patriots piled money and draft picks into improving their tight end group, who had been absolutely dreadful since the departure of Rob Gronkowski. The Dolphins continued to build a deep safety rotation capable of matching up with anyone. Now it’s time to see which team building strategy worked best.
The Patriots, as a result of their new talented tight end duo, deep running back group and young quarterback, are expected to deploy a lot of ‘12’ and ‘22’ personnel early on in the season. That should force Jason McCourty and Eric Rowe — Miami’s two veteran safeties — into sharing the field together.
This should open things up for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who is very familiar with the duo down in Miami, and who had no problem exploiting Rowe’s deficiencies in coverage in their four matchups over the past two seasons. Look for the Patriots to isolate Rowe with Hunter Henry, their best route-runner at the tight end position.
Jackson vs. DeVante
Miami wide receiver DeVante Parker had some interesting words this past week regarding New England’s cornerback situation. When asked if he was disappointed that Stephon Gilmore wasn’t going to be playing on Sunday, he said this:
“A little bit. I want him out there but they have a good group of guys back there without him. I’m just looking forward to the matchups.”
Words that are sure to open the ears of J.C. Jackson, who is serving as the Patriots’ de facto No. 1 corner with the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year sidelined.
Parker and Gilmore have battled it out for a couple of seasons now, making for a pretty tense rivalry between the two, but Jackson just may not appreciate being lumped into the “group of guys” left in Gilmore’s absence.
Last September, Jackson and Gilmore split the Parker assignment for New England and Jackson surrendered just one reception to Parker. Sunday will likely present Jackson with the full DeVante Parker experience. Being able to neutralize quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s favorite target should go a long way in gauging how Jackson should be used in future weeks.
Uche and Judon vs. Miami’s left tackle
How do you say ... bloodbath?
If there is still one glaring need in Miami, it comes at left tackle, where Austin Jackson has not lived up to the billing as a former first-round pick through his first 13 career games.
To make matters worse for Miami, Jackson currently occupies the Covid-19 list, leaving his status in doubt for Sunday. His potential replacements are former second-round pick Greg Little, who was acquired from the Carolina Panthers just two weeks ago as a reclamation project, and rookie Liam Eichenburg, who has yet to practice on the left side as a Dolphin.
This should leave plenty of opportunity for Matthew Judon and Josh Uche to eat off of the edge. Both men had exceptional training camps, showing an innate ability to get after the quarterback. Look for those two to make some noise on Sunday, no matter who lines up against them.
Jones vs. Flores
The history between Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and rookie quarterbacks is a well-established one. He hates them. We’re talking a smoldering abhorrence against these poor souls who dare try to make a career for themselves on his time. But what about his pupil’s?
Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, in his lone game against a rookie quarterback, edged out Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers when his team secured a 29-21 victory. Sunday, he won’t just get a rookie, but a rookie making his first career start.
There isn’t much to say about this other than you know that Flores has some Belichick-ian schemes lined up and ready to go for Mac Jones. Can the No. 15 overall pick, who has been applauded for his preparation and maturity, overcome them? We’ll see on Sunday.