Perry: Five matchups that will decide Patriots-Dolphins outcome originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
Plenty of unknown headed into this Week 1 matchup between the Patriots and the Dolphins. On both sides.
Knowing what we don't know, let's try to dig into what we feel will be this game's most critical matchups. And pick a score. Why not?
The matchup that will decide the first half
Patriots front seven vs. Dolphins rushing attack
Both New England and Miami are going to be hellbent on establishing something on the ground offensively early in this game. Bill Belichick and his offense have been trying to incorporate zone runs that bolster their play-action attack all summer. Mike McDaniel was the run-game coordinator in San Francisco not all that long ago, and he will adopt a similar approach to his former run-game-loving boss Kyle Shanahan.
The Patriots have struggled to get things going offensively in that regard, so how their wide-zone stuff plays may not necessarily be a determining factor.
But the Dolphins? They could rack up a first-half lead if they run their wide-zone concepts the way McDaniel surely expects them to. Behind newly-added athletic linemen in Terron Armstead and Connor Williams, they have the personnel to do it. They also have backs in Chase Edmonds and Raheem Mostert who should thrive in that kind of rushing attack.
It'll be up to the Patriots front seven to stop that running game in its tracks and force the ball into Tua Tagovailoa's hands.
Belichick has called for five and six-man lines in the past to stop this type of running game. (Think back to Super Bowl 53 and his plan for the Rams.) If New England can prevent double-teams at the point of attack and erase cut-back lanes with guys like Matt Judon and Deatrich Wise setting firm edges, they could be OK.
The cat-and-mouse game between Patriots linebackers Ja'Whaun Bentley and Raekwon McMillan -- flowing with the moving Dolphins offensive line -- and Miami backs looking to go against the grain as 'backers over-pursue will also be fascinating to track.
The matchup that will surprise you
It likely won't be just Jones on Hill. He'll be given some help. But Devin McCourty wasn't wrong this week when he pointed out that Jones has had some success defending Hill in the past.
“I would say Jon Jones doesn’t get a lot of credit on our team over the last few years with J.C. (Jackson) and Steph (Gilmore),” McCourty said. "He’s been a key part of our success, and I think his ability physically to run with Tyreek Hill as much as anybody can run with him, and go out there and compete against him, I think you pair that together with the game plans that we’ve had, (it) has been pretty good."
The Patriots couldn't stop Hill in their first-ever meeting in 2017, when Hill went off for seven catches, 133 yards and a touchdown. He racked up 142 more yards and three touchdowns on seven catches in 2018. But Jones was only targeted once when in coverage of Hill and didn't allow a reception, according to Pro Football Focus. That carried over into that year's AFC title game when Jones saw a good deal of Hill again and didn't allow a catch on two targets.
The Patriots had found their Hill matchup.
The following year, the Patriots let Jones take the Hill responsibility and run with it. He allowed five catches on seven targets in their lone meeting, but for only 54 total yards and no scores. That's a win. In 2020, Jones limited Hill to two grabs on four targets for 39 yards and no scores when he got that matchup.
It'll be fascinating to see how the Patriots play Hill when he doesn't have Patrick Mahomes throwing him the football. Against a Tagovailoa-led offense, Hill -- one would think -- would be more of a catch-and-run threat than a consistent deep-ball problem. But the Patriots will have to be ready for both.
Safe to assume Jones will be heavily involved no matter what the plan. And don't be surprised if he has some real success.
The matchup that will bring you joy
Matt Judon vs. Austin Jackson
Jackson was the Dolphins' No. 18 overall selection in 2020 but hasn't come close to making good on that draft position through two seasons. Last year, starting out at left tackle, he was atrocious. He allowed 20 total pressures in three games and was quickly kicked inside to play left guard the rest of the way. At guard, he wasn't much better. PFF graded him as the No. 93 pass-blocking guard in the NFL.
Good news for the Patriots? Jackson is now slated to be Miami's starting right tackle. Judon played about 60 percent of his snaps against right tackles last year, and should see plenty of time on that side yet again.
After a strong training camp -- where it looked like he regained his legs after a very quiet close to last season -- Judon should bother Tagovailoa consistently in dropback-passing situations. That's the lefty Tagovailoa's blind side, and perhaps the matchup with Jackson allows Judon an opportunity to get his hands on the football for a game-changing play.
The matchup that will take years off your life
Patriots offensive line vs. Dolphins blitz packages
Unfortunately for them, they're coming off of a difficult summer when their starters didn't see much in the way of exotic blitz calls. Now? It ain't getting any easier. The Dolphins will be aggressive in coming after Mac Jones, and they'll test the Patriots' ability to protect with a variety of pressure packages.
Don't be surprised if the left side of New England's line is schemed against early and often. Dolphins defensive coordinator Josh Boyer was with the Patriots in 2018, when Trent Brown had an excellent year at left tackle. But Boyer also probably knows how important it was to Brown to have Joe Thuney playing alongside him, helping disseminate information to the edge that allowed Brown to play fast and execute at a high level. Now, with rookie Cole Strange on Brown's right hip, it may take some time to get the flow of information down pat.
David Andrews and Jones himself will do all they can to ensure that side has contingency plans for certain blitz looks, but there will be a lot on the plates of both Brown and Strange in this one.
The matchup that will decide the game
DeVante Parker vs. Xavien Howard
As a rookie, Mac Jones was 21st in the NFL on yards per deep attempt (12.1 yards per pass that traveled 20 yards or more down the field). Including playoffs, he was 28th in NFL rating on deep passes (72.4), which was well below league average on those types of throws (92.7), and well below his own rating to any other level of the field (96.7 from 10-19 yards, 95.2 from 0-9 yards, 104.6 behind the line).
This offseason, the Patriots tried to remedy those deep-ball numbers.
They drafted burner Tyquan Thornton (now on injured reserve) in the second round. They changed their offensive scheme to help encourage deep play-action shots. And they traded for Parker. The former Dolphin was New England's best down-the-field weapon through training camp, and he was one of the best in the league back in 2019.
Three seasons ago, Parker was fourth in the NFL with 478 yards on passes targeted 20 yards or more down the field, catching 14 of 29 deep targets. He was tied for second in the league that year with five deep touchdowns, and among players with at least 20 deep targets that year, he was second in quarterback rating produced (134.0).
If Parker can win some 1-on-1 matchups with Howard ... it could mean the difference between his new team winning and losing in his New England debut.
If Parker can win some one-on-one matchups with Howard, an All-Pro caliber corner, he'd do more than just get Jones on track for a better season passing down the field. Parker winning a few one-on-ones could help the Patriots see fewer Dolphins blitzes. No small task. But if he can do it, it could mean the difference between his new team winning and losing in his New England debut.
Jones was blitzed at the second-highest rate in the NFL last season (34.5 percent), and one would assume the Dolphins will continue that trend in Week 1. But now with a true jump-ball option in Parker, Jones has an explosive-play outlet when faced with extra rushers. If the Patriots can hit a deep completion or two on Howard, the Dolphins may be forced to soften.
Perhaps Boyer would be willing to drop a safety out of the box in order to devote another defender to guarding down the field. That could lead to better run opportunities for the Patriots and a more balanced offensive attack than the one they were forced to lean on most of last season. It could lead to a win, but until we see Parker regain his 2019 form in a regular-season matchup, that's a difficult one to envision.