It’s been a long off-season. While football returned in full force yesterday, or Thursday night if you want to be technical, it hardly served a major interest for Miami Dolphins fans. Sure it would have been nice to see the NY Jets not have another late game comeback thanks to the disasterous play of the Tony Romo, or a loss to the Bills in KC instead of a slaughter over the Chiefs. It was football. But it wasn’t Miami Dolphins football.
So the long off-season took one extra day to get the team back on the field. The wait is now hours and not days. Tonight at 7:00 pm the Dolphins will take on the visiting New England Patriots. Is it a must win game? Not even close. It’s the first game of the season. It will however go a long way in determining the fan support that the Dolphins will get at home throughout the season.
Miami is struggling to sell tickets. Tonight’s game is officially a sell-out but it was close. Next weeks Houston game is far from being sold out. A win tonight and those seats may get bought up after all. A loss and you can bet your savings account in Vegas that the game will have a lot of empty orange seats next week. (I’ll even take a picture of it to prove it).
Tonights game is vital to the support from the fans. A loss puts the team one back in the division. Far from insurmountable. It puts the team behind the eight ball to start the season with yet another home loss. The Texans are no slouch either and the only team in the NFL the Dolphins have never beaten. Home or away. Two home losses in a row will be devastating after last years home performance. The Dolphins can cure that with a win tonight.
It’s not like the Dolphins didn’t have a chance to beat the Patriots last year at home. The Dolphins were playing a very solid football game and in fact looked to have the upper hand early. The Dolphins actually led the Patriots 7-0 after one and after two Chad Henne interceptions, the Dolphins ended the half with a 7-6 lead. Then the special team meltdown occurred.
Following the game, special teams coach John Bonamego would lose his job and the Dolphins would struggle the rest of the season. Will a new year bring different results?
Keys to tonight’s game:
5: Stopping the Patriot TE’s: The Patriots have two of the best young TE’s in the league in Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. The Dolphins have struggled to defend opposing TE’s for the last five or six years. It’s not an exaggeration. Opposing teams actually have game planned their TE’s to be their primary receivers when playing the Dolphins in that time span. Kevin Burnett, the free agent pick-up from San Diego will have to change that. He and Karlos Dansby will need to have a big game tonight keeping Tom Brady’s outlet receivers covered. Brady is no escape artist in the pocket but he knows exactly where his players should be. If the Dolphins take away those outlets, Brady will struggle.
4: Miami’s defensive line: The Patriots have revamped their offensive line. They will be tested tonight by Mike Nolan’s speed, coverage, and stunt blitzes. Expect Miami to come fast and often to keep Brady out of rhythm. The Dolphins are going to have to bring a mix of run blitzes and pass rush blitzes as the Patriots will likely try to establish a balance between both. The Dolphins are susceptible to giving up big runs when the over emphasize the blitz. It will be the jobs of the safeties to lend support on the line. Miami’s corners should have a decent match-up with New England’s receivers. The Patriots do not possess the deep threat receiver they have in the past.
3: Chad Henne and Brandon Marshall: Last year Henne threw three pics against New England. Two of them to Rob Ninkovich. He must use what he has learned from this off-season. Poise and smart play. The Patriots will blitz him unless they find it easy enough moving the line of scrimmage against Miami’s suspect offensive line. If they can get pressure on Henne without blitzing, they will be able to sit in coverage, take away the Dolphins running game, and it will result in a hellish night for the Dolphins offense. Henne must “lead” the team tonight. Not just play quarterback.
Brandon Marshall missed the off-season player only workouts but he and Chad Henne seemed to develop a better relationship over training camp. It’s imperative that the Dolphins get Marshall the ball and allow him to make plays. If Henne and Marshall can work from the same page, they will be able to exploit weaknesses in the Patriot defense.
This can go two ways. His coming out party or the same old Chad Henne. If Henne is going to be a leader, he needs to do it in big games. Tonight is a big game on a national stage.
2: Dolphins running game: If you are looking for a 100 yard effort tonight by a Dolphins tailback, forget it. It won’t happen. The Dolphins simply do not have that kind of runner on their roster right now. Daniel Thomas is questionable for the game tonight and rookie FB/TE Charles Clay is out. While Thomas will see his share of touches, the onus of the Dolphins running game falls tonight on the shoulders of Reggie Bush. Bush is more likely to play a larger part in the passing game.
The Dolphins will try to run the ball and the Patriots will likely shadow Bush. Bush is far more dangerous in the passing game and the Dolphins will likely feed him the ball out of the back-field in both designed passing plays and as a dump off receiver. Bush is going to need to have his blocking skills in order as well as the Patriots should find a way to get pressure on Henne from the right side of the Dolphins line. If Bush can’t complete his blocking assignments, expect to see a lot of Lex Hilliard tonight.
1: Miami’s offensive line: The line has been offensive the entire pre-season. There are more questions on the right side than at any time in Tony Sparano’s three previous years. It’s time to drop the “genius” from Tony’s resume as it pertains to the line. He simply hasn’t got the job done and this year looks like nothing different. Anchoring the right tackle spot will be Marc Columbo who is a Dallas retread for Sparano. This pre-season, you would think he spent time in Spain doing bull fights rather than Texas doing rodeo. He has played that bad.
Vernon Carey’s switch to guard has yet to pay dividends which makes it harder for rookie Mike Pouncey to learn his job. The Dolphins offensive production tonight and specifically the production of the running game and Chad Henne lie on the play of the offensive line. New England will attack it and newcomer Albert Haynesworth is looking t make a statement about his conditioning and level of play.
The Dolphins must win the trench battle and wear down the New England defensive front. If they can do that, they will control the clock, the ball, and the rest can lie on the shoulders of Bush and Henne.
How to beat the Patriots:
If I am coaching the Dolphins tonight, my game plan is far from simple. Brian Daboll has to mix it up and find the mismatches that will give his offense the best chance of moving the ball. Putting Brandon Marshall in motion will create positive mismatches in the New England schemes. Moving Reggie Bush into the slot will also have the same effect. I would alternate series using four and five wide-receiver sets and two tight end sets with quick passes and I would concentrate on running directly at Haynesworth. He is a load but he will wear out quickly in the Miami humidity.
Brian Daboll has said that Chad Henne has no restrictions. So they need to use that to their advantage. Henne won’t hit on all of his deep balls and I suspect that nerves will play a part in his touch passes being off early. They still need to take those deep shots and Clyde Gates could be the guy to get down field in a hurry. Attacking the New England defense is the way to win on offense. This can’t be about ball control. Put points on the board and force the Patriots to play a passing game on offense then defensively, keep pressure on Brady every time he drops back to pass.
Then, when the Dolphins are winning…don’t make the special teams the deciding factor.
Prediction - I hate predicting games. So many variables play a part. I like the Dolphins chances tonight but a lot of that hinges on the play of the offensive line. The Dolphins can’t win if the line play is average or worst. So far, they haven’t shown they can play an average game. I am however hoping and assuming that Brian Daboll hasn’t used his playbook throughout the pre-season. I expect the Dolphins to use more blocking stunts and pulling tonight which we haven’t seen this pre-season at all. It’s because of that, I believe that the Oline may be able to pull it together long enough for it to work.
Dolphins 24 – New England 23