By Greg Doyle, Patriots Daily Staff
The Patriots travel to South Florida on Monday night to face AFC East rivals Miami and to open the 2011 NFL season for both franchises. Miami is not an easy place to play for the Patriots, nor a lot of other NFL teams, and Monday should be no different. Any division team is tough, to have to open on the road against one is as difficult an opening as the Patriots could have received. Figuring in additionally that play can be sloppy on opening weekend and this all could be to Miami’s benefit. The Patriots no doubt have a more talented offense overall, but whether they’re hitting on all cylinders from the opening gun or not remains to be seen.. The sloppiness, which may be even more pronounced given the off-season lockout, may prevent the Patriots offense from showing its full potential early on.
For the Dolphins Tony “Shades” Sparano is still at the helm as head coach, but on the hot seat. Since a good debut season in 2008 in which the Dolphins won the division, they’ve slipped to 7-9 each of the last two years. Sparano probably has to make the playoff this year to save his job. He’ll go into the season with the same defensive coordinator as last year, the respected Mike Nolan, but with a new offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll. Beating the Patriots Monday night would be about as good a start to the season as they could dream of and it certainly is not going to be an easy game for the Patriots.
Lets take a look at some of the key factors/players, or just interesting stories, for Miami as we get this season rolling:
Sun Life Stadium: This will be the Patriots 12th time playing here during the Bill Belichick years and its one of the few venues he has a losing record in having gone 5-6 his first 11 years with New England. They have won 3 of 4 down there since a 21-0 drubbing in 2006 and, while it’s nowhere near the house of horrors the old Orange Bowl was to the Patriots franchise, still its been an exceedingly tough place to play. Even 2 of the 3 Super Bowl winning teams under Belichick have fallen in Miami. On opening night and on national TV, the crowd should be very loud and disruptive. An early lead for the Patriots would go a long way towards taking those factors out of the game and a long way to evening up the record down there for Bill Belichick.
Brian Daboll, Offensive Coordinator: Daboll is a former Patriots assistant under Bill Belichick from 2000 thru 2006 when he went to the Jets to coach quarterbacks for good friend Eric Mangini. When Mangini got gassed in New York and moved to Cleveland, Daboll went with him, this time as offensive coordinator, for two 5-11 seasons there until Mangini got the axe there. Daboll was let go as well and now has resurfaced in Miami as their new offensive coordinator. Of the mere ten wins Mangini and Daboll managed to put up in two seasons in Cleveland, one was a memorable 34-14 thrashing of their former mentor in New England, Bill Belichick, last season. It was towards the end of that game that Daboll, less than two months from being fired for the second time in three years, arguably showed up his former team and coach with this over-the-top display. While I suppose one can understand the excitement, given how often he was on the losing end of things after leaving New England, it could also be something the Patriots remember as well as they travel to take on his new team in Miami. Without a full off-season to learn Daboll’s offense, how the Dolphins O fares about what is thought to be a newly aggressive Patriots defense could prove to be a key to the game.
Daniel Thomas, #33, Running Back: The Dolphins let both Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams walk away after drafting Thomas in the second round of this past spring’s draft. This preseason, Thomas had mixed reviews, rushing 31 times for 109 yards and a TD. He’s a big kid at 230 lbs with average speed, but above-average power. Thomas, before he went to Kansas State, was a quarterback at junior college so the Patriots should be aware of the halfback pass. Thomas can throw a little. He’ll split time with Reggie Bush at tailback.
Chad Henne, #7, Quarterback: Henne was predicted by some to be on the verge of coming into his own as an elite QB last season. It didn’t happen. Henne threw 15 Touchdowns versus 19 Interceptions last season and had a mediocre QB rating. Early in camp this season, with rumors swirling the Dolphins were looking to acquire Kyle Orton from Denver to be their QB, the fans caused quite a stir by chanting “We want Orton” at practice and within earshot of Henne. This was something Dolphins Coach Tony Sparano didn’t take too kindly of and lead him to publicly criticize the Miami fans. Now rumors are swirling the Dolphins may be interested in signing recently cut Jacksonville QB David Garrard, something that could further undermine Henne’s fragile confidence. Its imperative for him to get off to a good start on Monday if he hopes to keep his job.
Cameron Wake, #91, Defensive End: Wake, a former Canadian Football League defensive player of the year, has become a terror in the NFL since coming over in 2009. Last season Wake racked up 14 sacks and gave all teams, including the Patriots, fits. Wake is the type of speed rusher that traditionally gives Patriots tackle Matt Light trouble. With Light advancing in years and coming off an off-season that included surgery and limited work in camp, accounting for this player has to be a key to a successful game plan for the Patriots Monday.
Vontae Davis, #21, Cornerback: Davis has become one of the better young corners in the league the last few seasons and certainly ranks with Darrelle Revis of the Jets and Devin McCourty of the Patriots as one of the three best corners in the AFC East. The younger brother of the 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, Vontae could be on the verge of getting all-pro type recognition now headed into his third season. Davis has picked off five passes his first two years despite many teams choosing to largely stay away from him. On Monday, it would be no surprise to see him matched up often against the Patriots new acquisition at wide receiver, Ochocinco. Success by Ochocinco against this corner could indicate he’s not as far behind in his progress as has largely been assumed.
Jimmy Wilson, #25, Cornerback: With Davis, Sean Smith and Benny Sapp ahead of him, the rookie Wilson is likely to see most of his action on special teams. Afterall, he was just a 7th round choice out of Montana this past draft and showed just enough in camp to barely make the team. However, we mention him due to his interesting back story. You see, Wilson spent 2007-2009 in jail awaiting trial for shooting and murdering his aunt’s boyfriend. Two trials, the first of which ended in a hung jury, were held. Finally, in 2009 Wilson was acquitted when the jury in the second trial found he had acted in self-defense. Two years later, the Dolphins drafted him. Amazing. No word yet if Roger Goodell will suspend him for the hung jury. Yeah, yeah innocent until proven guilty schmilty, right Sheriff?
Prediction: We’ll add a prediction segment to the column this year and give you readers a chance to smile over our lack of ability to pick these things. That being said, we’ll forecast that the Patriots offense is the difference and the defense chips in with a few turnovers as New England wins a tough, close game 27-20.