Are you ready for some football? Itís been a short, strange offseason, but itís time to turn on the lights and see what kind of team weíve got down in Miami this year, and theyíre going to have to bring their ďAĒ game from the beginning against a team like New England.
What have we learned about this team in the offseason? The team added speed on offense with players like WR Clyde Gates and RB Reggie Bush to help stretch opposing defenses. They made changes in the linebacker corps replacing ILB Channing Crowder with ILB Kevin Burnett from San Diego. Burnett looked good in the pre-season Ė good coverage as well as displaying good awareness and moving to the ball well. Special Teams coverage looked much better in the preseason, benefiting from the new kickoff rule, as K Dan Carpenter showed he can make the touchbacks, and out kickoff coverage can pin opponents inside the 20 given the opportunity. P Brandon Fields did excellent work in the pre-season, especially against Tampa Bay.
The biggest area of concern for me remains the offensive line, especially in the running game. Except for the game against the Panthers, the offensive line, particularly on the right side, has looked lost or overmatched at times. Coach Tony Sparano has expressed confidence in the offensive line, but moving OT Lydon Murtha to injured reserve appears to take our swing tackle backup out of action. I like the addition of OL Ryan Cook as another multi-use OL who may be pushing for playing time at one of the G spots going forward, or pushing OT Marc Colombo.
The biggest surprise for me this offseason is the development of QB Chad Henne. Itís not that I thought Henne couldnít improve, but I expected Henneís improvement to come as a result of improving other areas of the team. I believed a better OC in Brain Daboll, along with an improved offensive line and running game were the surest paths to increased production at the QB position. Instead, Henne demonstrated in the Tampa game that he can produce at a high level despite outright terrible performance in the running game. Itís only pre-season, but still a big step for a still young QB and I look forward to seeing continued improvement through the season.
Details to Watch: Week One vs New England Patriots
Miami gets to open the season on the national stage against QB Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. The Patriots are favored by 7 and very few of the prognosticators give Miami much of a chance in this game. The Patriots are tough to beat any week, and were not impacted as severely by the truncated offseason as Miami who needed to install a new offense. Tom Brady can be forced into mistakes, but heís also likely to take advantage of any mistakes made by opposing defenses, and turn them into points. Hereís what Iíll be watching for on Monday night:
This is a challenging opener for Miami, especially after a shortened offseason, and one in which New England seems to hold a lot of advantages. However, this looks like it could be a different Miami team with some surprises. If the defense plays up to their hype, Miami should be in this game and have a chance to win it in the end. Regardless of the outcome, the season is 16 games long Ė a win against a division rival is always great, but it wonít make 2011 an instant success or failure for Sopranoís Dolphins. If Miami can hold the Patriots under 20 points, I like their chances to win this game, and even a strong competitive showing will do a great deal for the confidence of this team.
- Miamiís Defense vs New Englandís Offense: Miami is talking about having an excellent, league-leading defense Ė hereís the chance to step up and prove it. Brady has a host of weapons at his disposal, Miamiís defensive front needs to bring pressure quickly and often to knock Brady out of his rhythm. In the past, Miami has suffered at the hands of playmaking tight ends, and NE will look to continue that with TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez testing the coverage ability of ILB Kevin Burnett and our safeties. The matchup that worries me is the underneath passing game. Miami showed some trouble with this in the preseason, and New England will test this with short passes to players like WR Wes Welker and RB Danny Woodhead. So, watch the pressure on Brady and the success of the short passing game as early indicators of how these teams are matching up.
- Miamiís Offense vs New Englandís Defense: New Englandís defense looked up and down this pre-season, but used shifting fronts and different packages to test offensive lines. Look for this to continue, especially with rookie OC Mike Pouncey and questions on the right side of the line. Iíd look for more runs to the left side behind LT Jake Long to test the run defense. If the running game struggles, I expect New England to drop back into coverage and look to see if Henne makes the kind of mistakes theyíve seen from him in the past. I expect Miami to counter with use of RB Reggie Bush in the passing game looking to generate some one-on-one opportunities deep for WRs Brandon Marshall, Clyde Gates and Brian Hartline. Early on, look for Miami to try to establish a balanced offense to keep the Patriots guessing, and watch for TE Anthony Fasano to continue to benefit from the attention given to the other playmakers, getting open in the middle of the field.
- X-Factors: There are a lot of subplots at play in this game. We have players like Reggie Bush looking for redemption and a chance to prove heís a complete running back. Chad Henne took a lot of abuse and needs to step up and show heís a legitimate starter in the NFL. ProFootballTalk.com ranked Miami 29th in their most recent power rankings, and ESPN Analyst Tom Jackson laughed for 21 seconds when asked about Miamiís chances to beat New England. (He then pinned hopes for success on a pass rush generated by Cameron Wake and ďChanning ChowderĒ so Miami is obviously in more trouble than we thought.) New England had great success in the regular season, but was bounced by the Jets in the playoffs, and are looking to start a return to post season glory. But in terms on motivation, the constant lack of respect should play well in Miamiís locker room.