Week 1 Preview: Dolphins at Patriots

Dolphins Patriots 2020 Week 1 Preview

Who: Dolphins (0-0) at Patriots (0-0)

When: Sunday September 13, 1:00 EDT

Where: Gillette Stadium – Foxboro, Mass.

Weather: 74 degrees, cloudy, 20% chance of rain

A lot has changed since December 29, 2019. Nine months after Ryan Fitzpatrick found Mike Gesicki for a go-ahead touchdown the last time the Dolphins took the field, we've seen coaching changes, a draft and free agency haul and all of that crammed in around a global pandemic.

Thanks to incredible work and unprecedented precautions taken across the NFL, we have football once more. A very different looking Dolphins team in Year 2 under Brian Flores travels to New England to face a Patriots team with plenty of new faces of its own.

For Flores and the Fins, 24 of the 53 players on the current roster were not here for the 2019 finale. The coaching staff saw considerable turnover as well.

The theme of change continues on the other side of the ball as New England replaced one former MVP quarterback with another in Cam Newton. New England lost eight free agents this offseason – three to the Dolphins – prompting the Patriots to sign six away from other clubs before selecting 10 players in April's Draft.

New England's coaching staff remains largely intact, though some shuffling has guys in new roles. The most notable change was the addition of Jedd Fisch at quarterbacks coach.

Establishing continuity amidst the significant changes will be one of the early-season storylines across the NFL. As both Bill Belichick and Brian Flores stated in their media availabilities this week, both teams will throw new looks at one another. In the absence of a traditional offseason program and preseason, the mystery amplifies the intrigue.

Injury Report

Miami listed seven played as limited participants in Thursday's practice. Safety Clayton Fejedelem (pectoral) Cornerbacks Xavien Howard (knee) and Byron Jones (Achilles), tight end Mike Gesicki (glute), wide receivers DeVante Parker (hamstring) and Preston Williams (knee) and linebacker Kyle Van Noy (hand) appeared on the report. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (hip) was listed as a full participant.

New England listed seven players on its Thursday report. Offensive lineman Yodney Cajuste (knee) did not participate. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore (hamstring) and tight end Dalton Keene (neck) were added on Thursday, both in a limited capacity. Wide receivers Julian Edelman (knee) and Gunner Olszewski (foot) were also limited and defensive lineman Chase Winovich (shoulder) was a full participant.

Patriots personnel

The Patriots had eight players opt out this offseason. Among the eight were some of New England's top snap-takers in 2019: Tackle Marcus Cannon (1,008) linebacker Dont'a Hightower (723), safety Patrick Chung (642) and tight end Matt LaCosse (433) all will not play in 2020.

No team demonstrates the understanding of 'next man up' more than the Belichick-led Patriots, and that will have to be the approach in the 2020 opener. The last two years, Patriots off-ball linebackers finished one-and-two and two-and-three in quarterback pressures among the position group – Hightower in both pairings, Van Noy and Jamie Collins the others (Van Noy's position designation changed to edge in 2019 on Pro Football Focus).

The forward-thinking team that they are, New England has reinforcements ready to take on a bigger role in the middle of the defense. Rookie Josh Uche strutted his stuff at Michigan with pressure on 23.3 percent of his pass rushes, according to Pro Football Focus. His former Wolverine teammate, Chase Winovich, played 291 snaps for New England as a rookie in 2019; he's due for a larger role after registering 23 pressures on 234 pass rush reps.

Stylistically, Patrick Chung and Kyle Duggar are different players, but the rookie safety oozes athleticism and features the range and coverage skillset Belichick covets. Duggar registered Scouting Combine testing metrics in the 95th percentile or better in the 10-yard split and vertical and broad jumps.

Despite all the change, the two mainstays that drove New England's success in 2019 return largely intact. The secondary – led by Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore – is chock full of athletic, aggressive cover guys that locate the football and take it away.

Few teams, if any, can claim a better offensive line than the Patriots – particularly on the interior. The team valued left guard Joe Thuney enough to franchise tag him for 2020. Center David Andrews surrendered only seven sacks in his four seasons and right guard Shaq Mason allowed only three sacks the last two years combined.

Matchup highlights

Dolphins run defense vs. Patriots run offense

Cam Newton amassed over 5,000 rushing yards (playoffs included). He's moved the chains just shy of 400 times with 60 touchdowns on the ground. New England's deep backfield produced the fourth-most two-back sets in the NFL a year ago.Running back Rex Burkhead averaged 4.5 yards per carry and 3.32 yards after contact, per Pro Football Focus.

The Dolphins added a plethora of bodies to the defensive front in rookie Raekwon Davis (73 career run stops at Alabama, per PFF) and veterans Emmanuel Ogbah (PFF career run-stop rate of 8.6 percent) and Shaq Lawson (13 TFLs in 2019). The Dolphins also added linebackers Elandon Roberts (PFF career 10.8 run stop rate), Kyle Van Noy (33 run stops in 2019) and Kamu Grugier-Hill (11 career tackles for loss).

Dolphins offensive line vs. Patriot rush

Bill Belichick schemes pressure as well as any of the defensive masterminds in the history of the game. While sacks haven't been the calling card, making the opposing quarterback uncomfortable and disrupting the offense's timing has paid dividends. New England has boasted a top six scoring defense each of the last four years.

The Dolphins are working in four new starters on the offensive line (Jesse Davis the lone incumbent). Communication will be key to thwart New England's multiple-look defense that features waves of games (stunts, twists, slant), overload blitzes and pressure looks from anyone and everyone in the box. Each of the last two years, New England had a pair of off-ball linebackers finish in PFF's top three at the position in quarterback pressures.

Dolphins receivers vs. Patriots secondary

Stephon Gilmore is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and J.C. Jackson allowed a completion rate of only 47.7 percent in 2019 (1.3 percentage points lower than Gilmore). The McCourty twins (Jason and Devin) graded 13th-overall at their respective positions on PFF (Jason 13th-best in coverage, Devin 13th-best overall safety).

DeVante Parker was fifth in the NFL in receiving yards (1,202) and fourth in touchdowns (9) last season. He capped the year with an eight-catch, 137-yard day (seven of those receptions and 137 yards coming against Gilmore). Gilmore won the Week 2 showdown holding the entire Dolphins team to just two catches on six targets for 32 yards, an interception and two pass breakups.

Isaiah Ford finished his late-season surge with seven receptions and 54 yards in Week 17. Four of the five receptions came with Jackson in coverage, including three for a first down.

Patriots system

Continuity is in New England's corner when it comes to the coaching staff and offensive and defensive systems. Josh McDaniels returns for his ninth season as the Patriots offensive coordinator, his second stint with the team (four years as the OC previously).

Under McDaniels, the Patriots are chameleons, able to morph the system weekly to best attack the opposition's weaknesses. In 2019, New England was one of two teams to run more than 50 plays (61) from 20-personnel (2 RB, 0 TE, 3 WR). McDaniels also dialed up 21-personnel (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR) 91 times, 13th-most in the NFL.

The Patriots only deployed the league's most popular package (11-personnel, 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) 592 times, 13th-fewest in the league.

Defensively, New England is stout. They had the top scoring defense and total defense in 2019, and the second-ranked pass defense with the sixth-ranked run defense.

According to Pro Football Focus, no team has played more snaps in Cover-1 (man defense with a single-high safety) than New England since 2015. In 2019, the Patriots played more man-coverage than any team and more Cover-0 (no safety help) with 67 snaps, and produced the most interceptions in the NFL (25) and the lowest passer rating against (67.3).

According to Pro Football Reference, the Patriots blitzed opposing quarterbacks 37.1 percent of the time – sixth most in the NFL. That defensive approach produced a top 10 pressure rate and tied for seventh in the NFL in sacks.

Final thoughts and game nuggets

The Patriots are 130-30 under Belichick in their home building. The all-time Dolphins-Patriots series goes to Miami with 56 wins and 53 losses.

Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick can surpass a trio of Hall of Fame quarterbacks (Troy Aikman, Y.A. Tittle and Steve Young) with 238 passing yards in the season opener. Fitzpatrick enters play with 32,886 passing yards, 38th most in NFL history.

Wide receiver Preston Williams returns for his second year after missing the final eight games of 2019 with a torn ACL. At the time of his injury, Williams was near the top of the leaderboard for the three major statistical categories among 2019 rookie receivers. Through nine weeks, Williams was tied for the rookie lead with receptions (32, Terry McLaurin), third in receiving yards (428) and tied for third in touchdowns (4).

Tight end Mike Gesicki's final catch of the 2019 season was a game-winner. That play capped a strong finish for Gesicki, who caught five touchdowns in the final six games.

Since 2017, despite playing in only 22 games, Xavien Howard is tied for the most interceptions (12) in the NFL with Kyle Fuller of the Chicago Bears over that span.

Safety Bobby McCain has played in more games in a Dolphins uniform than anyone on the roster, appearing in 71 contests with 40 starts.

The Dolphins finished fourth in the NFL by committing just 92 accepted penalties. Their 769 penalty yards last season were also the fourth-best mark in the NFL.

The Dolphins enter the 2020 season with two of the three youngest players in the NFL on their roster, and both were first-round picks in the 2020 NFL draft. CB Noah Igbinoghene (DOB: 11/27/99) is the youngest player in the NFL and the only one under 21 years old. He was drafted 30th overall. T Austin Jackson (8/11/99) is the third youngest player in the league, just two days younger than Baltimore LB Patrick Queen. Jackson was the 18th pick of the draft.

The Dolphins open the season with the second-youngest team in the NFL with an average age of 25.57, only .12 years younger than the Jacksonville Jaguars.

A total of 51 of the 53 players (96.2 percent) are 28-years-old or younger.

Post-game coverage

We will recap the game Sunday both on MiamiDolphins.com and on the Drive Time Podcast with Travis Wingfield.

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