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AFC East Showdown: Why The Patriots Should Be Concerned About The Dolphins

It's a new era in Miami, are they finally for real?

The Miami Dolphins have a lot to prove this coming season, particularly since the organization has been rebuilding for the past two seasons. 

This Sunday's season-opening matchup between the Patriots and Dolphins will be full of compelling storylines; the Patriots are looking to get back to their winning ways after missing the playoffs last year, the Dolphins want to prove that they are a threat in the AFC, and of course, both teams will feature former University of Alabama teammates at quarterback.

I’m not predicting who I expect to win. Instead, I’m presenting three things the Patriots should be concerned about heading into this weekend’s divisional battle in Foxborough.

Tua Tagovailoa's Emergence

All of the reports out of Miami are suggesting that Tua Tagovailoa looks like a completely different quarterback from last season. If we are being fair, Tagovailoa's rookie campaign was during a covid year in which he was expected to learn a new offense without much preseason preparation. Patriots fans know all about a struggling quarterback during a covid season. Old friend, Cam Newton, faced a similar challenge last year, and he also had a disappointing season.

“I wasn’t comfortable calling plays,” Tagovailoa said to the media. “I think the guys that were here last year were phenomenal. I just didn’t have the comfortability of checking plays, alerting plays, and doing that. I just rode with the play, even if I knew it wasn’t going to work. I was going to try to make it work still."

“I didn’t actually know the playbook necessarily really, really good and that’s no one else fault but my fault. Our play calls were simple when I was in. I didn’t have alerts and checks. Where now, I feel comfortable and I can maneuver my way through these things now.”

Another thing that Tagovailoa has going for him is that he is is another year removed from his hip injury. A lot of the criticism on Tagovailoa last season was that he could not throw. That was an important injury for him to fully recover from because quarterbacks throw with their core and hips more so than with their arms. 

As for Tagovailoa, aside from having a better understanding of the playbook, and trying to fully recover from an injury, he also has better weapons on offense

Week one, even without Will Fuller, the Dolphins will be fielding DeVante Parker, Jaylen Waddle, Preston Williams, and Albert Wilson at wide receiver. For what it's worth, the Dolphin's top receivers (excluding Parker and Williams who are still on the roster) in 2020 were Jakeem Grant Sr., Lynn Bowden, Mack Hollins, and Isaiah Ford. Miami improved their wide receiver room and even put some speed around Tagovailoa.

Something else to keep an eye on is Tagovailoa's connections with his tight ends. He has heavily targeted the tight end position all throughout training camp and the preseason. Mike Geisicki could be a huge player in this game. Look for the dolphins to get Geisicki matched up with Ja' Whaun Bentley in coverage. According to Pro Football Focus, Bently earned a 63.4 coverage grade last year. That ranked him 27th out of 75 for qualifying linebackers. Bentley primarily plays in the base defense and is taken off the field when the Patriots go into a nickel and dime defense. The Dolphins will want to try to take advantage of this matchup when New England is in base defense considering the matchup isn't as ideal when the Patriots go with their nickel and dime defense. Tight end Durham Smythe and rookie Hunter Long will also get some looks as the rest of the chemistry between Tagovailoa and the wide receivers continue to develop.

Last season, even though the Dolphins rushed for 250 yards, Tagovailoa performed well enough to defeat the Patriots in Week 15, with a respectable stat line of completing 20 of 26 passes, throwing one interception, and rushing for two touchdowns, in a 22-12 victory. In that game, Lynn Bowden Jr. led the team in receiving. He won't be a factor this year, as he was put on season-ending IR.  

Overall in his rookie season, Tagovailoa threw for 1,814 yards with 11 touchdown passes and five interceptions.

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On Monday, September 6th, Dolphins Head Coach Brian Flores addressed the media and expressed his confidence in his young quarterback. 

“Tua is a better player. He’s worked hard, made a lot of improvement. Every game is a little bit different. Every game, the ebbs, and flows, what’s working, what’s not working, the weather -- there’s a lot that plays into it. We always want to create explosive plays.”

It certainly sounds like Tagovailoa will make a big leap this year. Will he give the Patriots defense fits?

The Dolphins Secondary

Xavien Howard is coming off a Pro Bowl season in 2020 with double-digit interceptions. In fact, he has led the league in interceptions two of the last three seasons. He is undoubtedly the Dolphin's best player. Howard could single-handedly affect the outcome of this game. This will be Mac Jones' first career start, and he is going up against an elite corner who picked off Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, and Russell Wilson last year.

Who is the cornerback playing on the other side of Howard? That would be Byron Jones, a player who has proven throughout his six-year career that he can stay healthy and be a week-in, week-out reliable starter. He may not be as good as Howard, but his coverage skills are still very good. Jones is also the better tackling corner.

Opposing teams typically try to avoid throwing in Howard’s direction whenever possible. So you would have to think Belichick and his coaching staff are not going to set up their rookie quarterback to fail. For that reason alone, Jones should have a busy day. 

A very underrated member of the Dolphins secondary is Eric Rowe. The former Patriots cornerback has really made a name for himself in Miami, especially after converting to safety. Last season Rowe made plays against some of the NFL’s most talented tight ends making his matchup against the Patriot's tight ends very intriguing. If I was a betting man, my money is on the Dolphins sticking Rowe on Jonnu Smith. 

Brian Flores Defense 

Miami’s defensive unit was by all accounts their biggest strength in 2020, ranking sixth in points allowed last season. Miami brought most of their defense back, although they did cut ties from Kyle Van Noy and drafted linebacker Jaelan Phillips as his replacement. Phillips is expected to be a good player. He had eight sacks in college last year. Although his snaps may start off limited due to the fact he missed some training camp time as a rookie.

An underrated player to keep an eye on is Andrew Van Ginkel. The former South Dakota Coyote and Wisconsin Badger is a huge part of the Dolphin's base 3-4 defense. Van Ginkel tends to come off the field when the Dolphins go to nickel and dime defense, but that could be less of a factor if the Patriots play their 12 personnel.  

Van Ginkel earned the 12th highest run defense grade per PFF (77.6) and the 15th highest pass-rush grade (78.1) among qualifying edge defenders last year. A matchup to watch is Van Ginkel going up against Isaiah Wynn since he primarily plays as the right outside linebacker in Miami's base 3-4 defense. 

In his second year in the league last year, Ginkel had 5.5 sacks on only 480 defensive snaps. He is expected to earn more snaps this year now that Van Noy and Shaq Lawson are with different teams.

The reason the Patriots should be concerned about Miami's defense is that Brian Flores and his coaching staff are going to throw a lot at Jones in hopes of confusing the rookie. Last season the Dolphins defense wreaked havoc against opposing quarterbacks. That defensive unit had a ton of guys at the line of scrimmage and they disguised their defense well to the point offenses didn't know who was coming and who was dropping back in coverage. That could be a lot for Jones to handle in his first career NFL game.

The Dolphins are going to be looking to stop the run. If you look at last year's two matchups, the Patriots had some success running against the Dolphins. In their first matchup, Cam Newton ran for 75 yards and two touchdowns, and Sony Michel rushed for 37 yards and a touchdown. In their second matchup later in the season, Michel ran for 74 yards on 10 carries, and Newton added 38 yards on nine carries. Neither one of those players are on the team anymore, but that doesn't mean Miami won't be looking to slow down Damien Harris or J.J. Taylor. It's in the Dolphins’ best interest to force the Patriots to throw the ball.