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10 to Watch: Patriots eye big divisional matchup vs. Dolphins

Here are the key things to watch for as the Patriots and Dolphins meet in an important Week 2 matchup.

WK2-2023TB-ThingsToWatchPDC

The 0-1 Patriots will face the 1-0 Miami Dolphins on Sunday Night Football this weekend as New England looks to get their season on track with a much-needed win against a major divisional rival. Miami is coming off an impressive back-and-forth win over the Chargers that came down to the final minutes, with Tua Tagovailoa throwing for 466 yards and Tyreek Hill topping 200 yards receiving with a pair of touchdowns. They're two parts of a potent attack that will test the Patriots defense after they had a strong showing in Week 1 against the Eagles.

The Pats finally broke a four-game losing streak to Miami at the end of last season, a 23-20 nailbiter despite facing second and third-string quarterbacks Skylar Thompson and Teddy Bridgewater. Despite that win, the Pats have yet to solve Tagovailoa, who owns a 4-0 record against New England, albeit with an unimpressive three touchdowns to two interceptions total in those contests.

The road to the playoffs starts through the division and with back-to-back AFC East games over the next two weeks, we'll learn a lot about how the Patriots stack up. No contest is a must-win in Week 2, but this one is about as close as it can get as the Patriots look to hold serve at home and log an important divisional win.

Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10).
Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10).

1. Mac Attack

Mac Jones posted a strong statistical day in a loss to the Eagles, setting a career-high in completed passes (35) while throwing for the third-highest yardage total (316) of his career with three touchdowns. The second quarter was the highlight of the game, as Mac threw two touchdowns and hit a hot streak that saw him complete 10-straight passes over the course of those two scoring drives. But situationally there was more to be desired, as Mac had a slow start and a stagnant finish that contributed to the loss. As usual, Jones took responsibility and put the defeat on himself, recognizing the missed opportunities that he and the offense had.

However, there were a number of factors at play. Two rookie guards and a right tackle who hadn't played all summer made up three-fifths of the offensive line, while arguably Mac's most reliable target DeVante Parker missed the game due to a knee injury. There's no guarantee that those issues won't again be the case this week as New England's injury issues on the offensive line have only grown this week with Trent Brown and Sidy Sow missing practice and that's why, in a game with significant long-term impact on the divisional standings, Mac will have to find a way to take the second-quarter offensive performance and extrapolate it to a full 60 minutes against the Dolphins.

"They're really good up front. They've got everybody back, pretty much, and it's always been a big challenge going against these guys," said Mac this week. "They're definitely one of the top defenses, in my opinion."

2. Runners Right

The newly-arranged offensive line played a significant part in New England's paltry 76 total rushing yards on 22 carries against the Eagles, a 3.5 yards-per-attempt average that did not do enough to complement what was an effective passing offense during a handful of drives. The Patriots unveiled a bit of a new twist offensively, playing nine snaps with both Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott in the backfield at the same time, 11.5 percent of their offensive plays, with a success rate of just 44 percent. Was that due to Stevenson's stomach bug that caused him to miss practice last week? Or is this an area Bill O'Brien will continue to experiment with? Either way, it seems like the days of a pure third-down back are gone. Ty Montgomery can handle that role but spent just two of his nine snaps in the backfield. Early signs are pointing more toward Stevenson and Elliott carrying the bulk of the load, no matter the down.

Last week's rushing performance by the Chargers (234 rushing yards) against the Dolphins has to be intriguing as the Patriots plan their attack. Pushing the right buttons with Stevenson and Elliott will be a major key. If the Pats can get the running game going it will help fuel the entire offense. They weren't able to get to the second level very often against Philly but the explosive runs should be there if the offensive line, in whatever configuration it might be, can open up some seams.

Team photographers David Silverman and Eric J. Adler present their favorite photos from the Patriots season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023.

3. What does the OL look like this week?

Everyone was at least a little surprised when Cole Strange and Michael Onwenu were ruled inactive for the Eagles game. We knew the questions at right tackle, questions that had been kicked around all summer, and then, suddenly, the guard positions were the biggest concern. Rookie Atonio Mafi and Sidy Sow did a reasonable job considering the circumstances, especially in pass protection. However, as mentioned above, it was tough sledding for the running backs, who's longest run of the day was 11 yards for Elliott. For Stevenson, his longest of the day was just five yards.

Once again there should be some hope that Strange and/or Onwenu could be back this week and with Brown and Sow entering concussion protocol this week, their return would be welcome, especially in the ground game where Strange's athleticism and Onwenu's brute force are key elements of the team's rushing attack. If the vets cannot return it will be up to the rookies to make some strides against a tough Miami front that closed out the Chargers with two sacks on the final three plays of the game. According to Next Gen State, the Dolphins defense generated 6 pressures and a 54.5% pressure rate in the fourth quarter (4 pressures & 16.0% pressure rate in first three quarters). Christian Wilkins and Jaelan Phillips lead a potent front that has had plenty of battles against the Patriots blockers in the past.

"The one thing that I left feeling good about is their competitive spirit, they're never broken," said offensive line coach Adrian Klemm this week of his rookie starters. "You worry about a guy coming into his first game as a rookie, I've been there before, if things don't go well it could snowball but those guys just kept trucking away. They struggled at times, but for the most part, they were up for it. We made some adjustments a few times during the game and they were able to build up off of those things and carry that into the next series. There's some things that are really encouraging and I understand coming out of it there's a number of things we need to work on and get better at but there are some building blocks and we're headed in the right direction."

4. Parker Back?

The Patriots really missed DeVante Parker last week, as they were forced to sub in rookie Kayshon Boutte as their x-receiver and the rookie failed to come down with a catch despite five targets. At least two or three of those would've been caught by Parker. They came in his usual sweet spot, contest catches down the sideline and down the field, spots where he made plenty of plays this summer. In fact, the fade throw to Parker was one of the most reliable plays in the Patriots playbook and one Mac Jones went to many, many times this summer.

Against Parker's former team, the Patriots could really use the big veteran receiver back in the mix. His size and ability to win contested catches is a vital element to the attack, and his return would allow Boutte to work more as an inside receiver, a spot he should be more comfortable and productive in. Parker remained limited on the injury report this week, leaving his status once again up in the air.

5. Popping Off

Speaking of rookie receivers, it was a solid start for Pop Douglas, who played 33 snaps and caught four passes out of seven targets for 40 yards, including a beautiful 23-yard reception. Douglas' quickness and explosiveness stood out in the game just like they have all summer long, as the diminutive first-year player has shown that he fits in and belongs at the NFL level. Now, the question is how can Bill O'Brien get him even more involved as the team looks to tap his traits.

After playing 65 percent of their offensive snaps with three receivers on the field, the Patriots will continue to lock in on what their most effective combinations are, but in the early going it appears that Pop should only see his role continue to increase.

6. Fangio Defense

One of the biggest changes to Miami this year is the shift from the Belichick coaching tree on defense to Vic Fangio's Cover-2 heavy scheme. Fangio has been a popular figure in the latest NFL defensive evolution, as his approach to taking away big plays by keeping two defenders in the deep part of the field has caught on across the league. Last week against the Chargers, however, it looked like Miami's defenders were still adjusting to the switch from Brian Flores and Josh Boyer's attacking approach.

"Defensively, obviously it's been a big overhaul for them, with Vic [Fangio] coming in," said Bill Belichick on Wednesday. "I have a ton of respect for Vic as a coach and what he's done in the multiple times we've faced him and just watching his teams over the years, very disciplined, sound and extremely well-coached, well-prepared defense."

A major element of Fangio's defense is one the Patriots also employ, disguise. While there will often be two deep safeties, Fangio can get his defenders to those spots in different ways that will put pressure on Mac Jones pre-snap. Previously Mac could expect lots of zero blitzes and unexpected rushers and while that aggression might be dialed back a bit, there will still be plenty to decipher. A big key? Getting the running game going, forcing more players into the box and thus opening up some downfield passing potential.

"I think Coach Fangio has a lot of respect around the league. He's been around for a long time," said Mac this week. "He was in Philly [Philadelphia] last year for a little bit, obviously Chicago, Denver. So, he has a great background. He's called a lot of football plays, and his defense is pretty sound, always. The guys know what to do. They're very disciplined. I think each week, there's going to be some carryover, just with coaching trees and things like that. But, at the end of the day, he's kind of the top dog. He's the originator of all the stuff, and he's done a great job his whole career. I'm just looking forward to going against him."

Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill (10).
Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill (10).

7. Sleek Tyreek

Everyone knows this one by now when facing the Dolphins but finding a way to keep Tyreek Hill from going off is arguably the biggest key to victory. Last week the Chargers weren't able to contain Hill as he took 11 catches for 215 yards and two touchdowns. Jonathan Jones has had some success taking on Hill in the past but shutting down the most explosive receiver in the league is as much about team defense as any one player trying to do it all himself.

"If you pressure, you better get there, because when those guys get the ball and there are not many people around them, you're looking at a lot of yardage," said Belichick of the complications when trying to blitz this offense. "A lot of their yards are run after the catch yards, it's not all go routes and post routes. It's actually not a lot of that; it's a lot more catch-and-run plays. So, when you start bringing a lot of people, you better get there, because there's going to be a lot of space behind you if they get the ball, and they're both very good with the ball in their hands."

Not to be forgotten, Jaylen Waddle gashed the Patriots for a 4th-down touchdown in 2022's opener and chipped in four catches for 78 yards of his own in this year's opener. His speed isn't that far behind Hill's and they form a potent duo that can hit the end zone on any play. Head coach Mike McDaniel has plenty of ways to get Hill and Waddle their touches, using extensive amounts of motion to allow them to build speed and then get lost amongst the coverage players, and that's when bad things happen if you're a defense.

This is why Hill and Waddle will severely test the Patriots communication on the back end post Devin McCourty. Blown coverages in this one can quickly turn into six points.

"They've got a well-balanced team," said Belichick. "The quarterback's played very well, and he's had tremendous production over the last couple of years, led the league in a lot of different categories passing the ball. So, they've got a really efficient guy running the offense, solid offensive line, a couple of very explosive skill players – the running back and the receivers."

"I would say these guys, they bring in a different element of speed," said cornerbacks coach Mike Pellegrino this week. "Dynamic play, they really get down the field, they stretch the field, they don't just run deep routes. Their route explosion is very good. Those guys can plant at crazy angles and get in and out of their routes. They can roll it. They can hit it sharp. It's a very talented group."

Dolphins quarterback Tue Tagovailoa (1).
Dolphins quarterback Tue Tagovailoa (1).

8. Solving Tua

Tua Tagovailoa went 28-of-45 for 466 yards with three touchdowns and an interception in the team's win over the Chargers in Week 1. After finishing 2022 on the sidelines, Tua is back and picking up the MVP pace he was setting early last season when concussion issues began to strike. It seems like concussions are the only thing standing between him and true NFL stardom. That's certainly the case against the Patriots, as Tua owns a 4-0 record against his divisional rival. It hasn't been crazy production in those four games, Tua has just three touchdowns to two interceptions, but rather a penchant for playing well in the clutch in close games, along with some help from the Patriots at key times. To be fair, he's also completing close to 69 percent of his passes against New England while taking just eight sacks, an average of two per game. Simply put, New England's defense just hasn't been able to confuse or get to Tua consistently enough and as a result, his passer rating against the Pats has improved in each of the four times he's faced them. Despite being sacked three times in last year's opener, Tua still turned in a 104.4 passer rating.

How can the Patriots finally solve Tua? Rookies Christian Gonzalez, Keion White and Marte Mapu should help. All have impressive athleticism and speed at their respective positions to make an impact at all three levels of the defense. Muddying the middle of the field seems like a must, as Tua's accuracy and anticipation allow him to find holes in the defense, where catch-and-run plays turn into major issues.

"Every week we have to find a way to affect the quarterback in some way," said defensive line coach Demarcus Covington. "Each week brings its own different challenges. Miami bringing a good balanced offense to us that can run the ball and also do a good job with their passing game. Their offensive line, big strong dudes up front that can run black really well. They use a good amount of their play-action stuff to help out with the pass rush. We definitely got our work cut out for us this week."

9. Rookie Progress

11 Patriots rookies got at least a few snaps against the Eagles, with Christian Gonzalez, Atonio Mafi and Sidy Sow all playing 100 percent of the snaps, and Kayshon Boutte (69 percent), Pop Douglas (41 percent) and Keion White (35 percent) also playing significant totals. What will those numbers look like in Week 2? Gonzalez seems a good bet to repeat his wire-to-wire role, while the offensive linemen are likely to be called upon again with rising injury issues. Rookie Jake Andrews could be in line for an increase in action if Sow, Strange and Onwenu remain out.

It's White and Mapu that could be in the line for the biggest snap increases, as their intriguing traits should be helpful against an offense as explosive as the Dolphins. White recorded four hurries in limited snaps last week and appears to be a fascinating combination of size and athleticism who should only get better with more play time. In a game where getting to Tua quickly is a major key, White could help Christian Barmore, Matthew Judon and Josh Uche get the job done.

"When you're referring to the rookies that played, including the linemen, they have shown from day one really good work ethic and the ability to improve," said offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien. "So they've been out there a lot. They've been out there every day. They haven't missed a lot of time if any time. That allows for them to improve."

On the defensive side, Steve Belichick had similar praise for his youngsters.

"All three of those rookies, [Gonzalez, White and Mapu], have come in and really worked hard and tried to integrate themselves into the defense," said Belichick. "I think those guys have come in and done a good job, trying to carve out a role for themselves and all three of those guys, they put their head down and they work hard. I think it's been positive from them so far."

10. Kickers, Old and New

Two other rookies who got their feet wet were specialists Bryce Baringer and Chad Ryland. Baringer had some beauty punts, but also a touchback and outkicked his coverage on one, a couple of growing pains that should be expected. Ryland hit both his extra point attempts but missed out on any field goal attempts, and kicked three touchbacks while allowing just one return of 11 yards on a squib kick. Things should only get more intense for the rookie kicking duo, especially against a divisional opponent where points come at a premium and most games are close well into the fourth quarter.

Former punter Jake Bailey, now with the Dolphins, will return to the team where he spent his first four seasons. He punted just once for 38 yards last week. The Patriots will be hoping to up that total in Week 2.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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