Here are 10 matchups worth keeping an eye on in Monday’s season-opener between the Patriots and Dolphins in Miami.
Energy against energy
In the early going, it’s going to be all about energy and momentum between the two sides. For the Patriots on offense, that means increased tempo on the offensive side of the ball and protecting Tom Brady. For the Dolphins, it will be about seizing control on defense in the same way that the Lions were able to take command against the Patriots in the preseason. The team that controls the tone and pace early on in this game will be the team that wins this football game.
The Patriots defensive front against the Miami offensive line
New England showed a lot of four-man fronts over the course of the preseason, which led to more of an aggressive look when it came to getting after opposing passers. That was most noticeable at the defensive tackle spot, where Vince Wilfork and Albert Haynesworth occupied double-teams up front, allowing for teammates like linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive end Andre Carter to get after the quarterback almost unabated. If the Patriots can control the tempo early (as they did in the second preseason game against Tampa Bay), it’ll go a long way toward winning the football game.
Vince Wilfork and Albert Haynesworth against Mike Pouncey
If Haynesworth is healthy, this figures to be a colossal advantage for the Patriots. This won’t be a two-on-one matchup -- Pouncey will get lots of help from guards Richie Incognito and Vernon Carey -- but this appears to be a big edge for New England if it does opt to use a four-man front, as the combination of Wilfork and Haynesworth will look to exploit Pouncey’s inexperience. “All week long, the veteran guys in my unit have just (been) telling me, ‘Hey, if you mess up on a play, just let it go,’ " Pouncey told the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel last week when asked about going up against Wilfork and Haynesworth. “That’s the biggest thing, because those guys are great players. So, every play ain’t going to be pretty.”
The Patriots secondary against Chad Henne and the Miami passing game
The first rule of any Belichick defense is to stop the opposing team's No. 1 offensive option, and when it comes to Miami, that means slowing down the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Brandon Marshall. A big rangy receiver who has always had good success against the Patriots (he has 288 receiving yards in five career games against New England), he’s one of the best when it comes to moving the chains -- 15 of his career 24 receptions against the Patriots have gone for a first down. Also keep an eye out for Davone Bess, a less-heralded but no less dangerous receiver who has even better numbers against the Patriots -- 33 catches for 395 yards and three touchdowns in six games against New England. Cornerbacks Leigh Bodden, Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington will be charged with slowing down the Marshall-Bess combo.
Tom Brady against the Miami defense
Early in his career, Brady was a bit of a mixed bag when facing the Dolphins at Miami, but he has played well as of late -- he has nine touchdowns, two interceptions and a 138.8 quarterback rating in his last three visits to South Beach. As we mentioned in the first point, the biggest key to the game will be who seizes control early, and for the New England offense, that starts with Brady. If the quarterback and his team are able to kickstart the offense the same way they did in the preseason win over Tampa, things will end well for the Patriots. If they can’t get started early, chances are good they’ll get bogged down early and it’ll end up being a tight one.
Reggie Bush against the Patriots defense
Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown, who did most of the running for the Dolphins last season, are gone. And while the team has added veteran Larry Johnson as running back depth, Bush appears to be the closest thing to a feature back for the Dolphins at this point, as rookie running back Daniel Thomas is questionable for Monday’s game with a hamstring, while it’s unknown how much Johnson has left in the tank at this point. This will present a new challenge for the New England defense, which has never faced the 6-foot, 203-pound Bush over the course of his five-year career. He’s never been a typical between-the-tackles back, and so he’ll bear watching as someone who ran get his touches in the running game as well as the passing game. Look for the Dolphins to shuffle him around the field a bit in hopes of getting him matched up on a Patriots’ linebacker.
The right side of the Patriots offensive line against the Miami pass rush
The Dolphins were better than average when it comes to getting after the quarterback in 2010, finishing 10th in the league with 39 sacks, including 14 from outside linebacker Cameron Wake. It’s expected that Wake will be facing left tackle Matt Light, while rookie right tackle Nate Solder will go up against Koa Misi on the other side. If Misi can get consistent pressure, look for the Patriots to try and help out with newcomer Dan Gronkowski. (It’s also important to remember that he may not be the same player he used to be, but Jason Taylor has still shown an ability to get after the quarterback -- the future Hall of Famer leads all active players with 132.5 sacks, 10.5 of them coming against Brady.)
Rob Gronkowski against Chris Clemons
The tight end had a tremendous summer. While he didn’t get a lot of time in the preseason, there were times where he was dominant over the course of training camp, sparking a belief that he will have a terrific 2011. Gronkowski presents matchup difficulties for the Dolphins, but will likely draw the safety Clemons (at least at the start) as well as double-team possibilities. If Miami does double-up on Gronkowski, that could present opportunities for other New England pass catchers Monday night.
The Patriots against the Miami heat
Miami used to be without peer when it came to playing in the South Florida heat early in the season -- from 1994 to 2002 they won 16 consecutive home games in August and September. It got to a point in the early stages of the 20th century where the Patriots (one of the league’s more mentally tough teams at the time) confessed to being completely befuddled by what to do to try and beat the heat. (On an episode of WEEI’s “NFL Sunday” last year, Troy Brown and Christian Fauria talked about how the Patriots would try and tape garbage bags over the air conditioning systems in the locker room for fear of getting too comfortable at halftime.) New England has won its last three early-season meetings in Miami, winning October games in 2003, 2007 and 2010, so it appears as though the Patriots are over their early season phobias with the weather on South Beach. But that doesn’t mean the Dolphins can’t wish for warm weather: asked about the 7 p.m. kickoff this week, Miami coach Tony Sparano said, “It’ll be hot, but it won’t be 1 o’clock hot.”
The Dolphins against their own crowd
Rather remarkably, Miami practiced with piped in noise over the course of the week. (“I’m not naive. I know there are going to be a lot of New England fans,” Sparano said. “Somehow they make their way into our stadium. We have to prepare for it.”) The Dolphins have struggled at home as of late -- Miami’s 1-7 record in its stadium a year ago was the NFL’s worst, and it was especially glaring because its 6-2 road record was the second best. (That home/road disparity was the league’s largest over a full season in 50 years, according to STATS LLC.) You get the Dolphins down early in their own place, and this isn’t a team that’s likely to offer much in the way of a fight.