By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Football returns to Gillette Stadium on Sunday, as the Patriots open the home portion of their schedule against their AFC East rival, the Miami Dolphins.
The home opener is always a special day, and Sunday will be no exception. Jimmy Garoppolo will make his first career start in front of the New England faithful (at least, his first start that counts in front of the New England faithful). The team will honor 2016 Hall of Fame inductee Kevin Faulk at halftime. And most importantly, the Patriots will look to improve to 2-0 on the young season.
The Dolphins tend to give the Patriots some problems, but they’ve dropped seven straight in New England while allowing a ridiculous 32 points per game. In their last three trips to Gillette, the Dolphins have been outscored 104-37.
It’s been ugly for Miami up north, and that trend has a strong likelihood of continuing on Sunday. But divisional games tend to be tough, and the Dolphins did put together a nice defensive effort in their 12-10 Week 1 loss to the Seahawks in Seattle, one of the hardest places for road teams to play (you know, because of those amazing fans they have). Miami is hoping rookie head coach Adam Gase and his offensive mind are what turn quarterback Ryan Tannehill into a star, but that likely won’t happen against a tough New England defense.
Here’s what we’ll be watching for in the Patriots’ home opener Sunday afternoon:
Jimmy Hot Fingers
No, not that one. But this does have everything to do with how Jimmy Garoppolo handles the football.
He did a great job getting the ball quickly out of his hand Sunday in Arizona, keeping his uniform fairly clean against a talented pass-rush. Garoppolo will have to repeat that quick release when the Dolphins invade Gillette Stadium this weekend.
Miami has some terrifying linemen on their defense led by the beast known as Ndamukong Suh. The 8-foot-6, 435-pound Suh (perhaps a bit of an exaggeration) sacked Russell Wilson once and finished with three QB hits in Week 1, and will be looking to pummel Garoppolo this weekend like he has Tom Brady numerous times over his career. The Pats may catch a break with Mario Williams likely out with a concussion he suffered last weekend, but they’ll still have their hands full with Suh and Cameron Wake, who has 9.5 career sacks in 13 games against New England.
It sounds like left tackle Nate Solder should be back to protect Garoppolo’s blind side this weekend, but it’s going to take a complete effort from the line (we’re looking at you, Marcus Cannon), and some very hot fingers from Jimmy to keep the Miami pass-rush at bay.
Tannehill On The Ground
While Garoppolo will need to keep his head on a swivel, the same can be said for Tannehill, who has been sacked 22 times in his four games at Gillette Stadium. Miami’s iffy offensive line allowed five sacks against the Seahawks last weekend, so the Patriots defense will be ready to pounce — especially with center Mike Pouncey unlikely to play with a hip injury.
Guys like Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long have to be going into this one like kids (gigantic kids at that) walking into a candy store. Anthony Johnson is foaming at the mouth to square off against the team that cut him two years ago. And Jamie Collins is just a freak, and it’s more probable than not he’ll make some kind of game-changing, eye-popping play that will lead to good things for the Patriots.
The Patriots secondary will do all they can to lock up Jarvis Landry, Miami’s lone playmaker on offense. It will be no easy task, but contain him, and Tannehill will really have to work to do anything. Those extra seconds with the ball in his hands could be the difference between Long or Sheard hovering around the quarterback and bringing him to the ground. And if the defense can’t get him down, that pressure will force him to make throws he won’t necessarily want to make.
Tannehill has thrown seven interceptions in his four road losses in New England, and if the Patriots pass-rush can continue to apply the pressure, that number should keep growing.
Dont’a Hightower is doubtful and is going to be watching this one from home, nursing a knee injury he suffered in Week 1. That subtracts a giant playmaker from the New England defense, and the Patriots will need an athletic big body to fill the void.
Jonathan Freeny will probably get bumped up on the depth chart, moving up to the No. 2 role alongside Collins, and that will let Barkevious Mingo (along with the likes of Shea McClellin and rookie Elandon Roberts) slide into that third linebacker spot. At least, that’s what we hope, because how can you not want a guy named Barkevious Mingo out on the field?
It helps that Mingo is extremely athletic and capable of making plays, as he showed in the preseason. He didn’t show up on your defensive stat sheet in Week 1, instead playing 21 snaps on special teams as he gets accustomed to the New England system. But with Hightower out, that creates an opportunity for the former sixth overall pick, to get some run on defense.
Approach Before The Half
The Patriots went ultra conservative with Garoppolo just ahead of halftime in Week 1. The masters of the score-before-halftime, score-after-halftime move decided to primarily run the ball in both of their pre-half possessions. They first got the ball with just over four minutes left in the half, and went handoff to Brandon Bolden, another handoff to Bolden (which was fumbled), and short pass to James White before punting away to Arizona.
When the Pats got the ball back with 1:24 left, we were treating to five LeGarrette Blount runs, two of which were negated by penalties.
This is no knock on them being conservative with a first-time starting quarterback in an extremely hostile setting. The last thing Bill Belichick wanted last Sunday night was for Garoppolo to chuck it down the field and have one of the Cardinals defensive backs bring it back for six points before heading to the locker room.
But with a game under his belt and a much friendlier atmosphere around him, we’ll see if the training wheels come off if Garoppolo is presented with another opportunity just before the half.
Tune in to Patriots-Dolphins Sunday afternoon at 1pm on WBZ-TV and 98.5 The Sports Hub — the flagship stations of the New England Patriots! Pregame coverage begins on 98.5FM at 10am with Patriots Preview, with three full hours of postgame coverage after the game. WBZ-TV begins their coverage at 11:30am with Patriots GameDay, and catch Jimmy Garoppolo and Bill Belichick’s postgame press conferences LIVE on Patriots 5th Quarter following the game.