Patriots vs. Dolphins preview: Defense will make life hard on Tua Tagovailoa

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Tom E. Curran's Patriots vs. Dolphins preview and prediction originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Patriots right now aren’t the marquee team they were for two decades.

They don’t get the prime-time ESPN or NBC slots or CBS’ No. 1 broadcast crew (although I’m always happy to spend three hours listening to Kevin Harlan, who will do this week’s game). They are, by definition, a rebuilding team.

They have a rookie quarterback, free agent imports at key positions after a monumental spending spree and a down season in their immediate past. Even if their bottoming out didn’t put them in the gutter, that doesn’t mean they didn’t hit their own bottom in 2020. Much as a Patriots fan might bristle at the Dolphins being a role model, they kind of are. In 2019, they hit their bottom early in the year under first-year coach Brian Flores and have swiftly gotten to “good.”

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The Patriots are starting from higher. Their finish point in their rebuild will probably be higher. But this non-marquee game is one of the most fascinating on the schedule Sunday because of the intertwined coaching staffs, quarterbacks and AFC East fortunes.

When the Patriots have the ball

For the record, Cam Newton was probably the best thing that could have happened to the 2020 Patriots offense. They didn’t really have enough people to throw to so they basically found the biggest, strongest, fastest kid they could and told him to run when he had to and throw if he must. It was an offense you’ll see all over high school football fields across the country this weekend. The retooling didn’t start with Mac Jones. It started with a classic tight end (Hunter Henry) and the fastest, most versatile tight end on the market (Jonnu Smith).

Then the Patriots picked up a field-stretcher (Nelson Agholor) and a guy to fill the Chris Hogan/Malcolm Mitchell role (Kendrick Bourne). Then, in the draft, they happened on the right guy to run an offense that’s always put a premium on effectiveness as opposed to the spectacular. What will Mac Jones do in his first NFL start? That’s a well-kept secret. My guess? He’ll throw more than we think. Even though the Patriots have the pounding running game and a fully healthy offensive line and the Dolphins have as aggressive a defense as there is in the league, this is a “zig when they think you’ll zag” kinda game.

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One way to neutralize the Dolphins Cover-0 blitz activity will be to either spread Miami out and go five-wide or go ultra-heavy and pound the ball with two backs and two tight ends. Or even three tight ends. Miami has a talented secondary with high-priced corners Xavien Howard and Byron Jones and former Patriots Jason McCourty and Eric Rowe. Expect aggressiveness from them because Jones -- in his first NFL start -- is bound to have an ill-advised throw or two. How the Patriots deploy Smith is going to be the most interesting thing to key on.

Even with the inexperienced Jones, I’m bullish on offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels hatching a crafty plan.

EDGE: Patriots

When the Dolphins have the ball

The Dolphins don’t have a great offensive line to begin with and their left tackle, Austin Jackson, is out due to COVID. So Tua Tagovailoa is going to be up against it with a radically improved Patriots defense that -- by the end of 2020 -- was an absolute eyesore. The Patriots' changeable front-seven of Lawrence Guy, Davon Godchaux, Christian Barmore, Deatrich Wise, Matt Judon, Josh Uche, Chase Winovich, Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Ja’Whaun Bentley has plenty of skill to bottle up the Miami ground game and bring pressure on Tua.

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The secondary is stacked at safety with Adrian Phillips, Devin McCourty and Kyle Dugger and one of the league’s best slot corners (Jonathan Jones) and young boundary corners (J.C. Jackson). There’s a concern about the second corner spot with Stephon Gilmore on PUP and either Jalen Mills or Joejuan Williams likely to be on the field. But I’m just not seeing Miami having the time or firepower to make that a game-breaking sore spot on Sunday.

EDGE: Patriots

The kicking game

The Patriots have Quinn Nordin on the active roster with Nick Folk on the practice squad as his safety net. We’ll see if they make a move prior to Sunday to give Nordin more time to marinate, a decision that they’d make if he scuffles at practice (media has limited access to practice so we won’t see if he’s horrific).

The Patriots also have the league’s best punter (Jake Bailey), an All-Pro punt returner (Gunner Olszewski) and one of the best kick-covering hombres to ever do it (Matt Slater). This is an overlooked point-saving and earning mismatch most every week for this team. Miami has a very good kicker in Jason Sanders (36 of 39 last year) and a shifty returner in Jakeem Grant. Their punter, Mike Palardy, is coming back after missing all of last season with a torn ACL.

EDGE: Patriots

Patriots medical report

OUT

WR Malcolm Perry, Foot

QUESTIONABLE

WR Nelson Agholor, Ankle

T Yodny Cajuste, Hamstring

LB Ronnie Perkins, Shoulder

S Jalen Mills, Ankle 

Dolphins medical report

QUESTIONABLE

WR Preston Williams, Foot

Game within the game

Who throws up on third-and-6-or-more? Both young quarterbacks are going to get every kind of exotic blitz, pressure and coverage thrown at them. Somebody’s going to make the big gaffe and when it comes it will be when they are trying to “make a play.” The mantras of “First, do no harm ...” and “live to fight another play” at some point have to give way to some aggressiveness for both quarterbacks. One of them will step in it.

Dolphins gotta stop

Josh Uche/Matt Judon. I feel like it’s going to be a feeding frenzy in the pass rush for the Patriots. Maybe neither of these edge guys comes up with a sack, but don’t be surprised if sacks come as a result of their pressures.

Patriots gotta stop

Jaylen Waddle. The Patriots are going to have to devote a little extra attention to both tight end Mike Gesicki and wide receiver Davante Parker, both of whom have had big days against the Patriots in the past. It’s the rookie Waddle, though, who may be the player most capable of making lightning strike whether it be at wideout or as a punt returner. He is ... eeeeelectric.

The winner is ...

Patriots 23, Dolphins 3

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