Patriots Mailbag: Here's what could decide game vs. Dolphins

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Perry's Mailbag: What could make or break Mac Jones vs. Dolphins originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

With the Patriots' season opener against the Dolphins right around the corner, let's tackle your questions in one final mailbag...

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Good questions, HC. Both guys you mention are currently listed as questionable for Sunday. But let's play out that hypothetical and start on the defensive side.

If Jalen Mills can't go, the Patriots have three options to play the boundary: Joejuan Williams, Justin Bethel and Shaun Wade. Williams had a bumpy training camp on the outside. Bethel is primarily a special-teamer. And Wade isn't just new to the league -- he was drafted in the fifth round this year -- but he's new to the Patriots; they traded for him just a few weeks ago.

Williams would make the most sense to get the nod. He got more first-team reps in camp than anyone else here. It would be interesting if the Patriots chose the unknown here and bet on Wade's physical skill Sunday. He's an instinctive player with the length (33.5-inch arms) to play on the outside. And Boston College coach Jeff Hafley -- who was Wade's defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach at Ohio State in 2019 -- says Wade reminds him of Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon because of Wade's football IQ. (Hafley coached both former Patriots defensive backs at Rutgers.)

Tom E. Curran's Patriots-Dolphins preview and prediction

If the Patriots want to get creative, they could -- in their "big nickel" package with three safeties -- roll with Jonathan Jones on the outside and use a safety as their "star" defender in the slot. The Patriots will find ways to use Kyle Dugger, Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips simultaneously this season, and maybe Sunday presents them with the first opportunity in 2021 to do just that.

Where the Patriots luck out is that the Dolphins will be without wide receiver Will Fuller, who's suspended. That makes the matchup game a lot easier. Jackson can take DeVante Parker on the outside. Jones can take Jaylen Waddle wherever he goes. The Patriots will have to figure it out from there, but there's no strike-fear-into-your-heart No. 3 receiver in Miami (Mack Hollins, Albert Wilson, Preston Williams, Jakeem Grant), which should make the lack of a dependable third corner a little less of an issue.

Now, for the offense. If Agholor can't go, there's no one on the roster who can truly replace his speed on the outside. But in two-receiver sets, the Patriots would go with Kendrick Bourne and Jakobi Meyers.

I'm not sure we'd see any three-receiver sets if Agholor is out. Just doesn't make much sense. The Patriots have several pass-catchers at non-receiver positions -- Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, James White, J.J. Taylor, Rhamondre Stevenson -- who are more dynamic than their reserve wideouts.

If Agholor is down, expect McDaniels to go heavy... and throw it anyway. Perhaps we even see the Patriots trot out some 13-personnel packages with three tight ends to play with the minds of the Dolphins defense. After taking the league by storm in 2010 with 12 personnel, maybe Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels try to do the same with "13" this season.

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This could be what ends up deciding the game.

We know Brian Flores is going to pressure Mac Jones with those all-out blitzes. The easiest thing to try to do is recognize it (Have the safeties stated their intentions early? Are corners playing well off the line?) and attack quickly to the outside with corners playing inside leverage (because they don’t want to get beat in the middle of the field where there is no safety help).

Perry: Jones has a built-in advantage over ex-Alabama mate Tua

But that’s easier said than done, partly because the Dolphins will often show Cover 0 only to drop more defenders into coverage than an offense is expecting and try to jump shorter blitz-zero beaters. Big test for a rookie.

The good news for Jones? He’s been studying and working against the Patriots defense for weeks. What he’ll see Sunday, in all likelihood, is an uber-aggressive version of the same scheme. 

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Definitely, Aaron. 

The numbers we see on game days indicating win probabilities based on certain fourth-down calls can't account for everything. They don't necessarily account for the fact that someone on the interior of a team's offensive line is banged up on fourth-and-short. Or if Aaron Donald is lurking on the other side of the line of scrimmage.

The numbers don't know if your best receiver is emotionally checked out because he dropped an important pass earlier in the game. Or if your quarterback is getting shooting pains in his elbow and can't drive the ball to the sideline to beat a backup corner.

But teams are constantly juggling these variables. And when drawing on a lot of information over an extended period of time, most models (here's one from The Athletic's Ben Baldwin) seem to suggest that coaches simply aren't aggressive enough.

What's counter to those "bots," whose probabilities draw on years and years of results?

"I don't really care what happened in 1973 and what those teams did or didn't do," Belichick said two years ago. "I don't really think that matters in this game."

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If the Bucs continue to drop passes, fumble, and draw penalties at the rate they did Thursday night... Week 4 will be a great time to catch 'em!

How Tom Brady fared in Bucs' season opener vs. Cowboys

Otherwise, it'd be hard to believe the Patriots won't be a better team later in the season. Rookie quarterback. Overhauled roster. It could take some time. Later might've been better.

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I'm not even certain Quinn Nordin will be the guy on Sunday, Chuck. With the new practice-squad rules being what they are, maybe Nick Folk is called up for the game and in uniform. But the Patriots liked Nordin enough to keep him on the roster. And if they like him that much, they might as well give him a chance in pressure situations to see what he can handle.

Keeping Folk around would suggest to me that -- if Folk isn't the top kicker Sunday -- there could be a quick hook on Nordin should he struggle.

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I don't think he'd be opposed to this, Peter. He drafted Tim Tebow in the first round in Denver. But having the option to pass would likely outweigh any potential benefit of going with the Wildcat.

It's why you don't see it very often in today's game. You see a lot of RPO and zone-read stuff with full-time quarterbacks on the field. But not much Wildcat. 

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I'm not sure he'll be redshirted purposefully. For instance, Damien Harris ended up being redshirted in 2019 not because he wasn't ready to play. He was. He would've been more than fine. Sony Michel just never missed time, and thus Harris never saw an opportunity.

Next Pats Podcast: DeMarco Murray explains why Stevenson, Taylor have game-changing attitudes | Listen & Follow | Watch on YouTube

That could happen to Stevenson this year if Harris plays in 16 games (as Michel did in 2019). But I'd anticipate we see some Stevenson this season.

His ability to chip in on special teams should help him find the field relatively quickly. He was Oklahoma's best kickoff coverage player not too long ago, according to his Sooners running backs coach, DeMarco Murray.

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1. Yes. Because they don't need to be great given the team's depth at other spots.

2. TBD. They have a favorable schedule -- barring games against the Bucs and Cowboys -- during Stephon Gilmore's absence.

3. Depends on how defenses react to two tight ends on the field. I think most teams will check Henry and Smith with safeties (not linebackers) which will lead to the Patriots running, running and running some more.

4. Depends on the week. This week? I think so.

5. I don't know what that means anymore. Truly. He'll be their guy on first and second down.

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The issue with trading Gilmore is that what is arguably the most dire need on the roster only becomes a bigger need. A partial season of Gallup (who’s in a contract year and reportedly will miss three to five weeks due to a calf injury) isn’t worth as much to the Patriots as 10 games of Gilmore, in my opinion. 

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A shorter Chris Jones (6-foot-6, 310 pounds, 34.5-inch arms)? Christian Barmore’s strength and quickness is something else. He’s not as long (6-foot-4, 310, 33.5) as the Chiefs star, but he was disruptive in obvious passing situations all summer and I’d expect him to have a key role on third downs early in his rookie season.

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