While most of the league kicks off their 2011 season today, the Patriots had to wait until Monday evening to get started against their divisional rival Miami Dolphins.
Coming off a 14-2 season in 2010 during which their young and inexperienced defense proved they could hold their own, the team as a whole now looks to establish themselves as an even more well-rounded, skilled and confident team. The Patriots have won eight of the last ten AFC East titles, but it hasn’t been without struggles against the Dolphins who have always challenged their divisional superior, even when they haven’t challenge many others.
Here are five things to watch keep an eye on in the season opener for the Patriots:
- The Miami running game: The dynamic yet aging duo of Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown have been replaced by former Saints back Reggie Bush and rookie Daniel Thomas. Although they will provide more speed in the backfield and Bush has good hands doubling as a short down receiver, this can be considered an overall down grade in the running game. Bush has struggled to hold his own as a consistent starter in the NFL, and word is that Thomas is tending to a hamstring injury. This will be a good first test for the Patriots revamped defensive line
- The Patriots wide receivers: the biggest storyline for the offense in the off season was whether or not Chad Ochocinco would be able to adjust to life in Brady’s world where the best receiver is the open receiver. General consensus from camp and preseason games was that Ochocinco has struggled with multiple drops, possibly due to his trouble picking up the play calls and schemes. As a dedicated and healthy receiver with an outspoken respect for his new team, I don’t expect him to struggle this way all season. But don’t be surprised to see Brady working more effectively with his safety blankets, Wes Welker and Deion Branch, until 85 can get his groove back.
- The Patriots defensive backs: Their success against the passing game hinges on the production of cornerbacks Devin McCourty, Leigh Bodden and safety Patrick Chung. McCourty has a lot to live up to after a Pro Bowl rookie year, and Bodden returns to action after being sidelined with an injury last year. If the two of tehm return in top form, they could be a formidable threat to any of the best passing games in the league. Chung is not elite, but has shown potential to be a big play maker and has great vision on the field. He’s also shown potential to be a great leader and motivator on and off the field.
- The New England running game: Although it may look the same as it has in recent years, the running backs of 2011 provide a burst of youth that the Patriots have not had in a long time. Replacing old and slow vets like Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor are young 2nd and 3rd round picks Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley. Danny Woodhead returns after a spectacular breakout year in 2010 to resume his role as a resourceful and adaptable receiving and third down back, and Kevin Faulk remains on the team as a back up and mentor to his young successors. Most importantly, Benjarvus Green-Ellis has looked strong and confident throughout the preseason, and is poised to anchor this group throughout the season. He has great steady hands, protects the ball, and has an eye for the endzone in short-and-goal situations. The Patriots running game should be able to capitalize on their depth and versatility against a weak Dolphins offensive line.
- Yeremiah Bell and Cameron Wake: These guys are two game-changers in a matchup against the Patriots. Bell is an incredibly effective tackler with a knack for forcing fumbles, which can be a bad matchup for the mostly undersized Patriots receivers. Cameron Wake is a threat to put some serious pressure on Tom Brady and the offensive line at outside linebacker. Both Dan Connelly and Sebastian Vollmer are questionable, and if they don’t play, wake is an even greater threat if Brady can’t get rid of the ball quickly.
For more New England Patriots coverage, visit our team page and blog, Pats Pulpit.