Patriots vs. Dolphins: Three to Watch on Offense

As the New England Patriots prepare to host the Miami Dolphins in their first regular game of 2021, Patriot Maven highlights three offensive players on whom Pats fans might want to keep watch.
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As the old saying goes: “Let the games begin.”

The New England Patriots will open the regular season this Sunday, September 12 at 4:25pm against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. With preparations nearing their completion, the Patriots are set to take the field with several key free agent additions, some returning familiar faces and a new rookie quarterback with the expectations of an entire region on his shoulders.

Though many Patriots players are expected to garner some attention during Sunday’s matchup, here are three players on offense that might raise an eyebrow when the Pats take the field against the Dolphins.

Mac Jones

The Mac Jones-era is about to begin in New England. Following an impressive performance in training camp, as well as the preseason, the number 15 overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft is ready to take the reins of the Patriots offense. With Jones at the helm, the Pats will continue to operate under a timing-based system, predicated on vertical routes and completions from quick, accurate throws. During his time at Alabama, Jones was quite proficient at running this type of offense. With a strong supporting cast of playmakers around him, Jones should be able to create plays by leading his receivers under the defense, releasing the ball quickly and delivering it accurately. In order to gain ground against a strong Miami defense, the 22-year-old will need to give his intended targets the space they need to catch and run with the football. As such, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would be smart to have Jones throwing from the outset. While many expect the Pats to ride the running game early and often, compiling quick completions early and often would boost the rookie’s confidence. It also might be a slight surprise for Miami. The key for Jones’ success on Sunday will be to find a rhythm and balance in his offensive attack, which cannot become dependent on the pass. Miami’s secondary is among the best in the NFL, and will get in position to create turnovers, should New England become too dependent on their passing game.

James White

Despite a dip in production for the 2020 season, one in which the Patriots offense struggled as a whole, White was still one of the Pats’ primary options in their up-tempo, no-huddle offense. This should continue into 2021. White is at his strongest when operating in third-down situations, utilizing play-action to set up the wheel-route. In 2020, the Dolphins had the best third-down defense in the NFL, offering impressive diversity of formation and blitz variations. At various points throughout the season, Miami lined up with three-to-four down linemen, bringing pressure through the middle and from the edges on third down. They are also quite adept at feigning the blitz, while dropping some players back into coverage. With Mac Jones sure to be looking for consistency throughout the game, White may be a frequent target for third-down conversion. If the Pats are able to gain success against an obvious Miami strength, it is likely to bode well for the Pats on Sunday.

Also of note, White has caught 25 touchdown passes in the regular season, putting him second all-time among Patriots running backs, behind the 26 by Larry Garron. White could be in-line to tie or eclipse that record on Sunday.

Jonnu Smith

The tight end position is back in New England in a major way. In addition to signing for Chargers’ tight end Hunter Henry in the offseason, the Patriots also secured the services of Jonnu Smith. The 6’3” 248-pound former Tennessee Titan should provide exactly what the Pats lacked in 2020. Smith is a prototypical ‘move’ tight end that will be an effective target in the red zone. He totaled 41 receptions for 448 yards and eight touchdowns last season. All eight of those scores came in the red zone. Smith is also a more than capable blocker. Coupled with the route-running prowess of Henry, the Pats will look to use play-action to maximize their two-tight end sets. Smith’s athleticism allows the Patriots to move him around to get him the ball. As a result, Smith will likely be a target in the open field, as well as the red zone. The Pats may also mix in the occasional carry out of the backfield for him, as well.