The New England Patriots will be kicking off a new era tomorrow, as rookie quarterback Mac Jones will make his first career NFL start against the Miami Dolphins. That first career start will come against a team whose quarterback was his teammate at Alabama, Tua Tagovailoa. This is a game where both teams are evenly matched with inexperienced quarterbacks and solid defensive rosters that have an exploitable flaw.
#1: Running backs must carry the load on offense
The Patriots’ key strength on offense is the offensive line and deep group of running backs, all of whom are capable of making significant contributions in this game. In order to keep the Dolphins’ defense from teeing off on Jones, they need to stay on schedule for down and distance. So that means Damien Harris, J.J. Taylor, James White and Rhamondre Stevenson need to stay productive on the ground while Taylor and White make contributions in the passing game.
If the Patriots are able to establish the run, that opens up the play-action passing game, something Jones has excelled in college and preseason. The defense he’ll face in Week 1 will be more complex than he’s ever seen before, so it will be interesting to see how he handles it. The best thing the Patriots can do is simplify the game for him and not put the game on his shoulders.
#2: Interior offensive line must stay firm in pass protection
Jones is an average athlete at the QB position, but he’s not particularly mobile outside the pocket. In order for him to be able to maneuver that small area, the interior offensive line will need to be able to give him room to step up against edge pressure. The interior trio of Mike Onwenu, David Andrews and Shaq Mason will need to play well so Jones doesn’t have pressure in his face and make mistakes as a result.
The Dolphins will feature two solid defensive tackles in Christian Wilkins and Raekwon Davis. Davis particularly could be a problem for Andrews to block in pass protection, as his one flaw is bigger and stronger DTs can bull-rush him into the QB’s lap. The Patriots will need to utilize their play-calling to slow down the Dolphins’ interior D-line, with zone calls and misdirection plays potentially being successful.
#3: Defensive tackles and inside linebackers must generate pressure
This is basically the previous point, but in reverse. The Patriots need solid performances from rookie defensive lineman Christian Barmore as well as linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley to push the interior of the pocket into Tua to make him uncomfortable. The biggest weakness on the Dolphins’ offense is their offensive line, a matchup that the Patriots need to take advantage of.
#4: Force Tua to consistently make throws outside the numbers
Tua is a QB who sees the field decently well and has a quick release, but there are questions about his arm. For the Patriots, it may be easier for them to force the ball outside to the wide side of the field even though cornerback is currently a weakness on the defense. The throws are tougher and if they can get any push up the middle could make things hard for the Dolphins to push the ball down the middle.
Dolphins player to take away: TE Mike Gesicki
Wide receiver DeVante Parker may be a popular pick due to the fact the Patriots haven’t fared well against him the past couple years, but Gesicki might be more dangerous to the Patriots’ defense as a middle-of-the-field target and red-zone weapon. The Patriots will need to make sure he doesn’t get free releases off the line of scrimmage and have a safety ready to help on him. While not a great blocker, his size, speed, athleticism and catch radius makes him a very difficult cover for any linebacker or defensive back in a one-on-on situation. If the Patriots can limit his production, that will force Tua to look outside and give the pass rush a bit more time to get home.
Patriots offensive X-factor: RB J.J. Taylor
If there is one weakness in the Dolphins defense, they have one really good inside linebacker in Jerome Baker but their depth behind him is weak. While White could exploit such a matchup out of the backfield, the substitution rule would allow the Dolphins to match with a defensive back. So instead they need to have someone who can run against the extra defensive back or exploit linebackers in space. Taylor fits that profile as a guy who comes in as the No. 1 RB who can handle a bit of both.
Patriots defensive X-factor: DT Christian Barmore
The Patriots drafted Barmore as a player who can play multiple positions on the defensive line and create havoc. He’s better pass-rushing than run-defending right now, which may make him a passing-down specialist behind Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise Jr. in the defensive line mix. Barmore was capable of not only being a disruptor in college, but also someone who could finish plays. It might not translate right away in his move to the NFL, but even now we should see some flashes of a player who should have never made it out of the first round. If Barmore flashes a lot in this game, the Dolphins are going to have problems.
Final score prediction: Patriots 23, Dolphins 22
I expect a close game from start to end. When you have two inexperienced quarterbacks facing veteran defenses coached by two defensive masterminds, it will start slowly on the offensive side. The Patriots will fall behind in the third quarter, but the No. 15 overall pick will turn it on from there and score on back-to-back drives to end the quarter. As both teams trade touchdowns, missed extra points would loom large as the Patriots would find themselves trailing 22-20 late in the fourth quarter. After getting the ball back with four minutes left, Jones leads a drive for three points as Quinn Nordin gets two shots at a go-ahead field goal thanks to Miami penalties. Nordin hits a chip shot for the lead in the final minute and a late defensive interception in the end zone seals the game.