- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Top areas of interest leading into the New England Patriots' season opener against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET):
Offensive tackles against edge pressure. With Sebastian Vollmer out with a back injury, the Patriots are down to just two offensive tackles -- veteran Matt Light (left) and 2011 first-round draft choice Nate Solder (right) -- and the Dolphins have to like this matchup from a pass-rush perspective. Cameron Wake had 14 sacks last season, and longtime Patriots nemesis Jason Taylor is back in Miami after spending last season with the New York Jets. The Patriots didn't want to rush Solder into the mix this quickly, but injuries have forced their hand, and this highlights the importance to the Patriots of being balanced early to stay out of obvious passing situations. Overall, the Dolphins' front seven is tough, providing a big challenge for the entire offensive line.
Eliminating Davone Bess's big plays. The directional punting of Zoltan Mesko will be counted on to limit dangerous returner Davone Bess, while cornerback Leigh Bodden -- who has worked in the slot in the preseason -- projects as a key when the Dolphins move Bess inside in a three-receiver set. Now in his fourth season, Bess has recorded 82 receptions on third down, second best in Dolphins history. Three of Bess' top four receiving performances have come against the Patriots.
Interior defensive line vs. Mike Pouncey. The Dolphins will start rookie Mike Pouncey (first round, 15th ovreall) at center, setting up a matchup that potentially could benefit the Patriots with Vince Wilfork and/or Albert Haynesworth. One can envision the Patriots lining both Wilfork and Haynesworth head up on Pouncey, or shaded over him, to see how he responds. If the Patriots can win the battle at the point of attack, starting right over the ball, it would naturally make life easier for a secondary that is still coming together.
Aaron Hernandez as an X-factor. The Patriots' best matchup in the game likely will come out of the two-tight-end set with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez (it's going to be tough to win on the outside against corners Vontae Davis and Sean Smith) and the key will be how the Dolphins view Hernandez. If they treat him as a receiver (which is anticipated), that would likely bring an extra defensive back onto the field, opening the possibility for the Patriots to strike a nice balance between the run and pass. If the Dolphins stay in a base defense, Hernandez could have a big day as a pass catcher.
How do the safeties hold up? Brandon Meriweather played 80 percent of the defensive snaps last season and James Sanders was at a 71 percent clip -- now both of those safeties are elsewhere (Meriweather in Chicago and Sanders in Atlanta). Third-year man Patrick Chung looks primed to assume a leading role, but the question is who plays next to him. Second-year player Sergio Brown and four-year veteran Josh Barrett could split time, and expect the Dolphins -- under first-year coordinator Brian Daboll -- to take some shots down field to test them.
Reggie Bush vs. Patriots linebackers. The Dolphins' running back is equally, if not more, dangerous as a pass catcher. This will put extra stress on New England's linebackers and could create a matchup in which Dane Fletcher projects as a better fit at middle linebacker than the recovering Brandon Spikes (ankle). Fletcher did some of his best work in 2010 as a "spy" on running backs. Limiting Bush's work after the catch figures to be a top priority.
Expect a jump ball to Brandon Marshall. The Patriots have a bigger look at cornerback and a game like this highlights one reason for the change -- 6-foot-4, 230-pound Brandon Marshall is one of several bigger receivers the team will face. It wouldn't be surprising if Daboll, the Dolphins' coordinator, has a call for quarterback Chad Henne in the red zone to challenge the Patriots in this area.
Conditioning of players to be tested. Bill Belichick said on "Patriots All-Access" that he felt the team was in relatively good condition, given the context of not having an offseason program because of the lockout. A road opener in Miami will test that conditioning. Expect liberal substituting by Belichick.
Breaking in a new long snapper. The Patriots are on their third snapper since training camp began, having turned to rookie free agent Danny Aiken. That comes with some risk. If the game is on the line and the Patriots need a solid snap, how will Aiken respond?
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
Offensive line and kick coverage are areas to watch in the Patriots opener.