Welcome to Season 11, Episode 1 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious yet light-hearted, nostalgia-tinged look at the Patriots’ weekly game.
Now it starts for real. And now, we’re finally going to start getting answers to those questions that put a bewildering twist on the Patriots’ preseason.
The Patriots kick off season 23 of Bill Belichick’s tenure Sunday afternoon against the longtime rival AFC East Miami Dolphins. It’s the third straight season the teams have opened the season against each other, but it’s the first time they’ve done so in Miami since 2014.
Strange things often happen to the Patriots when they travel to Miami, and I’ll spare you here any lengthy rehash of Kenyan Drake’s 2018 “Miami Miracle,” 2004’s AJ Feeley-to-Derrius Thompson, or any of those other wacky and just note that despite almost always having a great team, the Patriots have won only three of their last 10 games in Miami since December 2012. Like I said: weird stuff.
This year, we might get some normalcy as the weird stuff quota was filled in training camp. Belichick opted not to appoint an offensive coordinator, leaving us all to speculate on whether Matt Patricia, Joe Judge or the head coach himself would call plays when the games start counting. Belichick also tried to install an outside zone blocking system that didn’t sit well with his offensive line staff, and it’s unclear whether the revamped and simplified playbook will better maximize the specific abilities of Patriots offensive players. .
Will the Patriots introduce run-pass options for Jones, the sophomore quarterback who has done well with those types of plays at Alabama? Will they lay out their versatile but barely star-studded group of passers and let Jones, as Russell Wilson likes to call him, “cook”? Would the offensive line, which had little cohesion in pre-season, be able to keep him up long enough to succeed in such a scenario? And don’t forget the defense: Are we sure any of these fast new linebackers are actually good?
Sunday, finally, we start to get those answers, against a Dolphins team with new coach Mike McDaniel, new offensive weapons and plenty of questions of their own.
Go ahead, Folk, and let’s get this thing started…
Three players to watch who aren’t quarterbacks
Raymond Stevenson: The Patriots’ second-year running back has a chance to redeem himself against the Dolphins on Day 1. A year ago in his NFL debut, Stevenson played five snaps, carried the ball once, lost a fumble on that one, dragged his stuff into a long-term stay at the Belichick doghouse and didn’t see the field again until Week 5 against Houston, when he made 11 carries for a not-so-sturdy 23 yards.
To Stevenson’s credit and the delight of Patriots fans, he learned from his mistakes, fumbled the rest of the season once again, and after Week 8 became arguably the Patriots’ most electrifying offensive player, rushing for 532 yards and 4 touchdowns and averaging 4.9 yards. by carry over to the last eight games as the ideal complement to starter Damien Harris, not to be outdone himself. Stevenson only had 14 catches as a rookie, but he’s expected to claw back a significant amount from the third reps who are there for the post-retirement catch of the great James White. I’m excited to see how the Patriots roll it out.
Tyreek Hill: Admit it, you snickered during the occasional videos during Hill’s Dolphins training camp, arguably the league’s fastest player in pads, scorching the field for a deep ball during a practice, only to see quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s throw come in lazy and fly the ball to center field. Hill could quickly learn he is no longer in Kansas City as he adjusts to playing with a quarterback who has considerably less talent on his arm than the quarterback he left behind, Patrick Mahomes. But we also know that the innovative McDaniel will find creative ways to get the ball into Hill’s hands. Hill actually averaged yards per catch last season (11.2, down from a high of 17.0 in the 2018 season), and I wonder if one of the Chiefs’ reasons for trading the player from 28 in the offseason had to do with the adage that it’s better to get rid of a player a year too soon than a year too late. But even if that’s the case, it at least suggests the Dolphins will get at least one typically dynamic year from him. It starts on Sunday.
Jalen Mills: I have a hard time understanding the idea of the Patriots going into the season with this guy as the presumptive No. 1 cornerback. That doesn’t mean he’s a wrong player. He’s versatile and aggressive, and established himself as a competent No. 2 against JC Jackson last season, his first in New England. He falls somewhere in that Randal Gay/Steve Israel category of competent second or third cornerback, but nothing more than that. He didn’t have an interception. He allowed seven touchdowns. In Belichick’s time here, he’s almost always had a closed corner or ballhawk: Ty Law, Asante Samuel, Aqib Talib, Darrelle Revis, Stephon Gilmore and Jackson among them. Maybe rookie Jack Jones or veteran Jonathan Jones will eventually thrive. But right now, it looks like the Patriots are missing out on one of football’s most important positions, against a team with real weapons.
Grievance of the week
You know what would be fun to look forward to right now? Tyquan Thornton’s NFL debut. Not that expectations were that the Patriots’ second-round pick would immediately set the league on fire like 1998 Randy Moss or something, but Thornton is a quick roadrunner, and his relative sophistication and ability to run different patterns on the road tree was something to look forward to at the start of training camp. The Baylor product seemed ready to contribute immediately and perhaps in a way that no other receiver on the list can. But those debuts are on hold for at least eight weeks while he recovers from a broken collarbone. Shame. The Patriots have something here. Too bad we have to wait at least half the season to start seeing it.
Prediction, or I wonder if 60-year-old Dan Marino throws a better deep ball than Tagovailoa…
It’s tempting to pick the Patriots to win this week, convince myself that Mac Jones and the offense will look sharp after getting through the preseason, that Matt Patricia will draw comparisons to Bill Walsh after his first game of call (presumably), that Christian Barmore and Kyle Dugger will play as future All-Pros fans hope, that Matthew Judon will be the pre-bye version of himself from last year, that Belichick teaches McDaniel on his debut as head coach, and proves he had a master plan for everything from the start. It is possible that part of this Is occur. But I think of two nasty losses to the Dolphins last year – when a fumble from Harris and the defense’s failure to stop cost them the opener and then the regular season finale when the Dolphins increased from 17-0 at the start of the second. quarterback and foreshadowed the playoff debacle against the Bills. The Dolphins have more pure talent, home-court advantage and a recent history of weirdness in their favor. That’s enough this time.
Dolphins 21, Patriots 20.
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