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Patriots vs. Dolphins keys to the game: Smith and Henry dictating what New England can do offensively

Related: The Patriots’ Week 1 game plan against the Dolphins

NFL: AUG 12 Preseason - Washington Football Team at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After a rough 7-9 season, spending boat loads of money in free agency, selecting a quarterback in the first round and a very long summer — we have finally made it. Week 1 is here and the Mac Jones era kicks off at 4:25 p.m. ET. Overshadowed by Jones, the new-look New England Patriots finally get to put the product they spent an entire offseason improving. Led by versatile edge Matt Judon on defense and the Patriots’ dominant tight ends, they finally get to put it all on the field to kick off the 2021 season.

As Bill Belichick said in his Friday press conference, there’s a lot of unknowns that come with Week 1. The Patriots have drastically changed, the Miami Dolphins have improved again on paper but with limited on-field action and competitive football yet to be played, both organizations don't have a full understanding on where their teams are at heading into the first game.

However, let’s get to the keys to the game and what to look out for in this weeks division clash.

New England’s front seven vs. Miami’s offensive line

The Patriots have mightily improved their front seven from the last time these two teams squared off back in December. With the aforementioned Judon and Josh Uche leading the way off the edge and Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy back in the fold, the Patriots have a ton of different ways to generate pressure to make things difficult on Tua Tagovailoa. Being able to scheme up different looks to throw at Tagovailoa to make life tough on him is likely where the game will be won or lost. Especially without Stephon Gilmore and the cornerback position thin with Jalen Mills questionable, the Patriots have to take full advantage of the edge that they have on the Dolphins’ front.

Making life easier on Mac

Mac Jones said on Wednesday, “You can be nervous, but you can’t play nervous,” and despite how well the rookie has been since he’s gotten to New England, Sunday afternoon will be the first true test of his young career. With the Patriots’ balanced and versatile running back room, they will have a variety of ways of moving the ball efficiently. Damien Harris will be the early down back and a lot of the offense should run through him this afternoon. Being able to establish a strong run game early on can help settle Jones in and take a lot off his plate.

Patriots need to unleash tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry

With Henry’s injury early on in camp, we didn't get a chance to see the duo get any time on the field together during the preseason. With the Dolphins thin at linebacker, the Patriots can exploit the defense by going heavy up front and dominating at the line of scrimmage and in the intermediate game with the two versatile tight ends. Expect the Patriots to be in “12” personnel for 85 percent of the game. If the Dolphins want to get more speed and size on the field to counter the New England rushing attack, Smith and Henry should have a big day with the ball in their hands. But, if they want to crowd the box and try to limit Henry and Smith hurting them through the air, the Patriots’ rushing attack could be in for a big day due to the lack of depth along the Dolphins’ front seven. It will be an interesting chess match between Josh McDaniels and Brian Flores, but the Patriots should be able to dictate whatever they want to do, in large part, because of their lethal two-tight end tandem.

Who fills in for Stephon Gilmore?

Even with Will Fuller V out for the Dolphins, the Patriots have a ton of uncertainty at the outside corner position with Gilmore starting the season on the PUP list. Throughout camp and the preseason, we have seen a ton of players get looks over there, but it seems like either Jalen Mills or Joejuan Williams will at least start the game across from J.C. Jackson. Mills, who was signed as a free agent back in March, struggled at corner during his time in Philadelphia and had some shaky moments this camp out there. Williams, the former second-round pick out of Vanderbilt, looks to maximize his opportunity after being buried on the depth chart his first few seasons. If Mills can’t go, Williams has the length and physicality to play outside corner but expect him to get a ton of action early on even with the Patriots bringing safety help over the top.

Prediction: With both quarterbacks still trying to figure things out, it will be a defensive battle on Sunday between the two division rivals. The Patriots ride the early lead they grab early on, maximize on good field position due to turnovers, and hang on to beat the Dolphins 21-17 to kick off the 2021 campaign.

Other notes:

  • The Patriots are 16-5 in week 1 under Belichick.
  • Jones becomes the first rookie QB to ever start under Belichick and the first rookie QB to start Week 1 since Drew Bledsoe 1998.
  • Jones faces off with Tagovailoa — members of the same Crimson Tide recruiting class.
  • Belichick is 6-0 when his quarterbacks make their first career start.
  • Devin McCourty needs one more interception to move into third all-time in franchise history (29).