Mike: Tedy, it's great to be back for another season breaking down the games. When the schedule came out in the spring, my first thought was that this was a tougher opener for the Patriots than it might appear to many. A Sunday 1 p.m. kickoff in that South Florida heat is part of it. Bill Belichick said this week that he actually prefers playing in Miami early in the year because the team can at least practice in some hot, humid conditions compared to going from winter to the sizzling heat.
Tedy: As a player, there were two things I always looked at when the schedule came out. The first was "When is our bye week?" The second was "Do we play Miami in December?" If it was September, you hoped it would be in prime time, where maybe the heat wasn't as much of an issue. But 1 p.m., in the middle of that heat, it's an environment the Patriots won't be used to. That's tough and then you consider that the Patriots had a cool training camp on average. I remember we used to try going down to Miami early, and also dressing up in sweats and turning up the heat in the field house. It does play a game with players' minds a little bit. It's a small element where Miami will have the advantage.
Mike: The Patriots are heading down a day early for this one, too, on Friday. Before we get into some of the X's and O's of the matchup, any thoughts on the Patriots' six 2014 captains?
Tedy: The only real surprise is Dan Connolly. You have to have some type of leadership presence along that offensive line. It usually takes a captain a good portion of the year to settle in and feel comfortable in that vocal role, as a vocal leader. I don't see Dan Connolly as a vocal leader, and hopefully he'll settle into those captain shoes and be that aggressor/enforcer that Logan Mankins was. He is a lead-by-example type of guy.
Mike: Bill Belichick has talked in the past about how leadership comes in different forms. He once said Troy Brown was one of the best leaders he's ever been around, and Brown wasn't very vocal. I'll be watching the offensive line, and how things come together without Mankins, as close as any other area on Sunday. Like others, I'll also be curious about Rob Gronkowski's debut. He might have been a little aggressive in declaring Monday that he would play, as Bill Belichick seemed to tap the brakes slightly on that.
Tedy: Here's one thing I'd say on that -- if the trainers tell Coach Belichick that a player is ready to go, he's going to play. You only play 16 games and Bill obviously wants to win every single one of them. I came back from a stroke and Bill played me 70-plus plays and I was starting on the punt team. If you're ready to go, you'll play. You don't save players for down the road, because if you go down and lose to Miami like you did last year, Denver may have a game up on you for home-field advantage. Basically, I think that's what it is going to come down to again this year.
Mike: Let's get into the matchup, starting with the Dolphins' offense. One of the key things to know is that it's a new system implemented by first-year coordinator Bill Lazor.
Tedy: When you're talking about a season opener, you always have to factor in the element of the unknown. Lazor's presence is part of that. From a Patriots perspective, you always have a book on a coordinator or a coach. I think about all those binders in Bill Belichick's office from facing all the coaches and teams over his 40-year career -- hopefully some of those are more digital-based now. But what's important is the notes from those experiences, which explain how units led by those coaches attacked you before. Specific to Lazor, he was the Eagles' quarterbacks coach last year, so that naturally is going to lead the Patriots' staff to look at the Philadelphia offense, and the experience of having joint practices with the Eagles the last few years should help too.
Mike: In your film study, did any specific examples come to mind about Lazor that the Patriots should be alert for?
Tedy: It's things like what the Eagles did to the Redskins in last year's season opener. There was a play (3:18 remaining in the second quarter) where the Eagles built a formation with just a three-man line of a center and two guards. They had the tackles split out wide to each side, and running back LeSean McCoy ran up the middle for 10 yards. That's some of the unexpected stuff you have to be ready for, and you watched that last year and it totally caught the Redskins off guard; it looked like the defense didn't know what to do at times. I'm sure the Patriots will be prepared for everything, but this is also a game where sideline adjustments will be important.
Mike: Personnel-wise for Miami, quarterback Ryan Tannehill (2012 first-round pick, No. 8 overall) has done some good things against the Patriots.
Tedy: If Coach Belichick wants to get players motivated, all he has to do is show them Tannehill in the fourth quarter last year and the drive he led to help the Dolphins beat the Patriots in that December game. Tannehill is improving as a professional, and here's one thing you can't forget about him: Going back to college at Texas A&M, this is only his fourth full year as a starting quarterback. He was splitting reps until his final collegiate season. He was a wide receiver before that. So there is potential for him to take a huge jump this year, and it looks like Bill Lazor is going to do things that put him in good position to make high-percentage throws.
Mike: Everyone saw how battered Tanehill was last year, being sacked a league-high 58 times. They've revamped the line, and it looks strong at the tackle spots with big free-agent signing Branden Albert (left) and first-round draft choice J'Waun James (right). There are still questions on the interior, where center Mike Pouncey is out after undergoing hip surgery a few months ago.
Tedy: I usually don't pay a lot of attention to preseason football, except for the third game, but the Dolphins' line looked like it was figuring some things out in preseason game No. 3 against the Cowboys. They were manhandling that front at times. Now, some of that could be that Dallas' defense is not very good, but I thought that was an encouraging sign for them. They have some good individual players.
Mike: It's Football 101 type stuff, but if they can get the running game going, that would simplify a lot for them.
Tedy: With this offensive system, which comes from Chip Kelly and the Eagles, many talk about the spread nature of it and the tempo, but I think it's easy to overlook that what they really want to do is establish the run first. That's where it starts. For Miami, Knowshon Moreno runs hard; he looked good in that preseason game against the Cowboys. You pair him with Lamar Miller and it reminds me of something Kelly said last year in Philadelphia -- he has an "equal opportunity" offense. That's what it should be in Miami. Miller will get his touches. Moreno too. Tanehill himself can run at times. The idea is to keep defenses playing 11-on-11 football, because you still have to account for the quarterback in the running game. The defense can't always be as aggressive because of that. If the Dolphins can do that, it opens things up for the short passing game and high-percentage throws to Brandon Gibson, Brian Hartline and Mike Wallace. Of course, Wallace is also that speed receiver down the field. So when you put it all together, Tannehill is set up to succeed here. He's positioned for a possible breakout year.
Mike: Tight end Charles Clay, a 2011 sixth-round draft choice out of Tulsa, had his breakout year last season with 69 catches and six touchdowns. He's a problem for the Patriots, as evidenced by the team's putting cornerback Aqib Talib on him at times in the December game last year.
Tedy: I really like him as a player. He's a guy you have to find right away -- a tight-end, H-back type of player who rushed for a touchdown last year as well. They will hand him the ball. He's not the type of player who just catches the ball and falls down -- he's a north-south type of player that Coach Belichick will game-plan against, especially in the red zone. He's the type of player who can dictate coverages for linebackers. If he's at tight end, it's man coverage. If he's in the backfield, you have combo coverage principles. If he's split out wide, now it's the safety's responsibility. There are a lot of different coverage responsibilities when you have a player like him on the other team.
Mike: Clay isn't the Dolphins' only skill-position player the Patriots must contend with. You've already mentioned some of the receivers with those high-percentage throws, but let's go even deeper with them.
Tedy: Brian Hartline is a hustle bunny. It's the type of thing where you might be devoting more attention to others and the next thing you know, he's the one with the 100-yard receiving game. You have to respect him as a quality player who can hurt you. With Mike Wallace, it's the same as usual -- he's a speed guy, and I think that's really all you have to worry about. They try to get him going on screens. Maybe a reverse. He's a straight-line runner, and if you can get in the way and slow him up, that's a guy they can win against in terms of disrupting his route. But the receiver who really sort of caught my eye was Brandon Gibson. Depending on how the Patriots match up with Wallace and Hartline, Gibson is a player to watch. He can hurt you too.
Mike: If we look at the Dolphins from a defensive perspective, the place to start is along the defensive line. As Bill Belichick said, "It's one of the strongest units that we'll see all year." The names to get familiar with are tackles Jared Odrick, Earl Mitchell (formerly of the Texans) and Randy Starks, with Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon at end.
Tedy: If you wanted a front to give you a quick answer as to how much Logan Mankins is missed, it's this one. Let's see how the Patriots hold up, and I know there has been talk of possibly moving Sebastian Vollmer to left guard. I think it's a big mistake if they do. For me, I always liked going up against tall offensive guards because I felt I could get under their pads and deliver a good blow. I felt like I could do almost whatever I wanted against those oversized type blockers on the interior. Specific to Vollmer, I think he's more of an athlete who belongs at tackle, and I wouldn't want to mess with him. He's one of the best right tackles in the league, so why move him to a position where he is not comfortable? Also, he's coming off an injury that was pretty serious (broken ankle), and now he'd be getting put into more traffic situations. At right tackle, when you kick slide, you're in space and you need to be that athlete against pass-rushers. You get into that guard spot and you're in the phone booth. A guy his size (6-8, 320), and coming off that injury, I don't know that I would want to put him in that situation.
Mike: That's the one part of this matchup that would concern me more than any other for the Patriots -- that strong defensive line against an offensive line still finding what fits best. What are you seeing from the rest of the Miami defense?
Tedy: When I look at the linebackers -- Koa Misi, Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe -- I see mismatch potential for the Patriots with their tight ends. This is a game where I think Tim Wright could produce some immediate results. I've heard some great things about him from former teammates, who say he works hard, is smart and is a Patriots-type player. We could see the return of the two-TE set becoming a bigger part of what the Patriots do. I think the Dolphins' linebackers will all have trouble against the Patriots' tight ends. I do like the defensive backs -- Cortland Finnegan and Brent Grimes are grinders. We all know the book on Finnegan; he gets under the skin of opponents and is physical and aggressive.
Mike: Scheme-wise, anything jump out at you with coordinator Kevin Coyle?
Tedy: He doesn't like to be handcuffed by only playing one front. You see a base 4-3, but he will throw in some hybrid 3-4 looks. He's from the Bengals system, so think Mike Zimmer and his approach. This is where a lot of the Week 1 mystery comes into play in terms of what new concepts he might bring out. So again, sideline adjustments will be key -- is he bringing DBs off the edge, double-A-gap blitzes and some of the other things we've seen from him in the past? You sort of have to wait and see and adjust accordingly.
Mike: We usually wrap up with a focus on special teams. The Patriots are bringing long-snapper Danny Aiken back to solidify that spot. Meanwhile, rookie running back James White looks like a leading candidate to be the primary kickoff returner.
Tedy: For the Dolphins, they had a punt blocked against the Cowboys in the preseason. There was a penalty on the play, but when you're a special-teams coordinator, those are the types of things you look at. It was Rishard Matthews who was on the wing, and he's still on the roster. On Sunday, that is something special-teams coach Scott O'Brien and assistant Joe Judge will look at, see if No. 18 is still out there, and if he is they tell their guys, "The rush is on."
Mike: All right, Tedy. Let's make our predictions for this one. If the Patriots can't control the line of scrimmage on offense, I wouldn't be surprised if the Dolphins spring the upset. This is a case where the Dolphins' strength matches up against a potential early-season area of vulnerability for the Patriots. I think the Patriots will come through in the end, but it won't be easy. Patriots 24, Dolphins 20.
Tedy: This Dolphins team displayed some mental toughness last year in fighting for an 8-8 record after all of the locker room controversy with Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. They've only gotten better with offseason additions and draft picks. However, Joe Philbin's team will be better in December than it is right now. The Patriots are always prepared for the opener. This year will be no different. The Patriots' defense is the difference. Patriots 38 Dolphins 20.