The New England Patriots kick off the 2011 NFL regular season in Miami tonight facing off against the hometown Dolphins.
Last season the Patriots beat the Dolphins easily in both matchups but things should be much different this year as the Patriots enter the game with more question marks than most people think while the Dolphins have improved over last season.
Off-season additions Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth are essentially unknown quantities at this point as Ochocinco has struggled to adapt to the Patriots' system while Haynesworth has struggled to simply get onto the football field.
Ochocinco has only tallied three receptions in the preseason although one of those did go for a touchdown. He has continually struggled on the field for the most part however as he doesn't appear to be fully comfortable in what he is doing. Much like many rookies would, he appears hesitant and spends more time thinking than he does acting.
His arrival in the off-season was celebrated by most Patriots fans as they saw him as their best receiver since Randy Moss left. While Ochocinco is very good he will not be in the similar style or be as effective as Moss was when he originally signed for the Patriots.
Running deep routes is not Ochocinco's specialty anymore as his speed is not what it used to be. At this stage he is a possession receiver and does not have the ability to take the top off of the defense. He does run expert routes however and once he is acclimated into the Patriots' offense he should make a big impact.
I don't expect that impact to come in this game however as the Dolphins' starting cornerbacks are vastly underrated coverage men.
Neither Sean Smith or Vontae Davis are turnover machines—the pair combined for a total two interceptions last year—but both are experts at preventing the opposition from catching the ball and have the ability to be lock down corners on any given night.
The Patriots may look a lot to Wes Welker in the slot tonight as their vaunted two tight end set may not be able to create the matchup problems they normally look for it to.
A huge staple of the Patriots' offense is their two tight ends of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski lined up with Danny Woodhead in the backfield. Woodhead, Gronkowski and Hernandez are players that cannot be labelled as one position players.
Coming out of the backfield Woodhead cannot be covered by linebackers generally because he is a shifty receiver with great hands and acceleration to beat defenders. This added dimension doesn't prevent him from being a respectable runner.
Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski—Gronkowski more so than Hernandez—create headaches for the opposition because they can only be covered by the most athletic of linebackers.
The reason the Patriots will likely have to abandon the two tight end set and look for Welker more tonight is because of Kevin Burnett. Burnett was signed in the off-season from the Chargers to become the team's inside linebacker alongside Karlos Dansby.
He and Dansby are both incredibly athletic and have the capability to cover Hernandez and Gronkowski down the field which means the Dolphins won't be forced out of their base 3-4 by the two tight end formation.
This prevents the Patriots from taking advantages of mismatches. With Ochocinco and Deion Branch likely having a tough time on the outside with Sean Smith and Vontae Davis, Welker will be Tom Brady's best option. The Patriots will look to run the ball also but the front seven of the Dolphins should be stout in stopping Ridley, Green-Ellis etc.
Tom Brady is obviously a class above Chad Henne but rookie Nate Solder will be vital if he is to have a big night. Solder has been forced into the starting line-up as Sebastien Vollmer won't be available through injury.
Solder will have to deal with Koa Misi and Jason Taylor for sure while the Dolphins will likely bring Cameron Wake over to test him throughout the game. Wake could have a big night if Matt Light isn't on his game as he notched 14 sacks last season.
On the defensive side of the ball the big question marks for the Patriots remain in the front seven and at safety.
There isn't much to say at safety considering there isn't much to know. The Patriots let James Sanders go early and then cut Brandon Meriweather on the final day to leave the team with Patrick Chung as the only player at the position to even play in a regular season game.
Sergio Brown will likely join him on the backend which could cause some concern considering the lack of experience. A mistake at safety generally means that the opposition will have a huge gain or be putting six points on the board.
The frailties are there on the Patriots defense as the front seven can only be best described as ambiguous.
Nobody really knows what to expect from the group. They may play more 4-3 than 3-4 or more 3-4 than 4-3. They certainly have the personnel to do either however the 4-3 will severely hinge on the impact Albert Haynesworth can make.
The Dolphins look set to start Mike Pouncey at center. As a rookie it may be better for the team to play more 3-4 to try and take advantage of Pouncey's inability to recognize NFL defenses. Also putting Vince Wilfork right over him at the nose tackle position would be a huge intimidation factor and irritation to work around for the youngster.
Whatever the scheme the Patriots must shut down the running game and in particular contain Reggie Bush.
With Chad Henne at quarterback the Dolphins will be expecting a marked improvement now that he is entering his third season as a starter but he will need to prove himself to the Patriots if they are to respect him after throwing three picks and being benched in the corresponding fixture last season.
Henne could be the Patriots best offense if they can create turnovers to put points on the board or just change field position.
However they must still respect the Dolphins' attack as Brandon Marshall is still a star receiver while Reggie Bush can score from anywhere and any situation on the field. If Larry Johnson can get up a head of steam early they could be in for a long night with Brady seeing a lot of the sidelines.
The Patriots may have beaten the Dolphins handily the past few years but this is a new season and as the Buffalo Bills proved yesterday anything can happen.
Those of you expecting an easy ride for the AFC favorites may be in for quite a shock tonight.