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Thursday, September 8, 2011
Updated: September 9, 9:23 AM ET
Unknowns should make for close game

By Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is on Monday's opener between the Patriots and Miami Dolphins (7 p.m. ET, ESPN):

Mike: Great to be back for another season, Tedy. Let's get right to it and talk about expectations for this Patriots team.

Tedy: I think it's going to be a great year for the Patriots. I think they win the AFC East. With the Jets competing with them closely, it's going to be a dogfight between those two teams, but I think the Patriots win the East and the Jets will be a wild card, so they might see them again in the playoffs. I envision a 12-4 season.

Mike: I also predicted 12-4, although the same thing always happens to me at this time. I'm tempted to decrease the win total, but that's what I did last year (to 11-5), and they ended up with 14. In the preseason, the primary concern that stood out to me was along the offensive line. I know you don't want to read too much into preseason games, but that third one at Detroit raised some concerns.

Tedy: I know, but they struggled last year in the third preseason game, against the Rams. I think the best thing about the preseason right now is that it's over. Now we can focus on game plans. All the players are excited that they don't have to have a training camp-type schedule anymore. So that's when you really focus and grind on one team at a time. You're looking at matchups. If I'm Vince Wilfork, I'm looking at center Mike Pouncey. If I'm Tom Brady, I'm looking at the two corners, Vontae Davis and Sean Smith. It's game-plan specific, the nitty-gritty. It heightens the players' focus.

Mike: When you look at some of the big changes on the Patriots this season, the one that stands above them all is defensively. This team is playing differently now. It will come at teams in waves, and it looks like it will attack. It was almost as if Bill Belichick reached a point in the offseason at which he said, "I'm going to blow this thing up and do something different."
Bill Belichick
Bill Belichick's new defensive scheme will be tested against Brian Daboll's Miami offense.

Tedy: I think it's going to become more of an attacking unit. I think what Belichick saw, and what he noticed statistically, is that 50 percent of the snaps last season were in sub. That means offenses were coming out with three receivers, or a tight end who is basically a receiver, and were throwing the ball. So that 3-4, two-gapping, stop-the-run, hit-them-in-the-mouth type of thing is becoming a bit obsolete. So instead of going from 3-4 on first down and then moving to a four-man sub front on second and third down, the idea is, "Let's just be consistent." It looks like he has the right people. That's important. When you change from 3-4 to 4-3, that defensive line, there are different animals in there. There are two-gapping guys and one-gapping guys, and you have to clean house. It's rare when you have a guy who can do both. The Patriots do have that in Wilfork, but they had to bring in Albert Haynesworth and others. Having said that, Belichick will continue to be multiple. He can decide to change up his fronts at any point in the season.

Mike: One could debate whether Belichick is actually a year or two late reacting to the changes in the NFL on that one, but regardless, it looks like a promising change at this point and leads into our breakdown of Monday night's game.

Patriots' defense vs. Dolphins' offense

Mike: Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne has made some strides this preseason, but I still question whether he's the answer to get that team where it wants to go.

Tedy: That's what the Dolphins need to be successful, because if he's not playing well, some of the changes they are trying to make on offense won't matter much. Henne has had a good preseason, completing 64.4 percent of his passes, totaling 446 yards and a couple of touchdowns and two interceptions. His preseason rating was 93.4, which is good for him. Brian Daboll, the Dolphins' offensive coordinator, has him playing good football right now.

Mike: Glad you mentioned Daboll, as he is an X factor in this game from a coaching perspective. He's a former Patriots assistant (wide receivers, 2002-06), and we've seen how some former New England assistants have drawn up some good plans based on their background in the system, back with Josh McDaniels with Denver in 2009 and Eric Mangini with the Jets and Browns.

Tedy: This is why the Dolphins brought him in. It's about having success against this Patriots defense, and he's had some in the past. Expect some of the same things you saw in Cleveland last season, as Daboll was the Browns' offensive coordinator the past two years. Multiple shifts. Multiple motions. Make the Patriots adjust. The Patriots have been the big boys of this division, beating up on the Dolphins. The Dolphins know they need to score points to keep up with the Patriots, and what the Browns did last season against New England had to catch their eye. Daboll also has them throwing it down the field more. So look out for jump balls to Brandon Marshall. Big receivers have had success against this Patriots secondary in the past.

Mike: That's one of the big themes in Miami this season, the idea that the Dolphins are getting away from a ground-based approach and moving that offense to more of an air-based approach. Daboll is the coach leading the charge there, and they have an exciting new weapon in running back Reggie Bush. In 2009, when the Patriots were preparing to face the Saints, Belichick drew a comparison between Bush and how he can be utilized to what the Rams used to do with Marshall Faulk.

Reggie Bush
The Patriots are likely to plan for Reggie Bush on Monday night, according to Tedy Bruschi.

Tedy: When we went up against Faulk in the Super Bowl, he was the game plan. He was the guy we wanted to stop whether he had the ball or didn't. We wanted to get a shot on him, whether he was coming out of the backfield or anywhere on the field. We wanted to reroute him, be physical on him, just slow him down. He was that special. Is Reggie Bush Marshall Faulk? Absolutely not. But he has similar abilities, and that creates mismatches if you can get him on linebackers. The Patriots will plan for Bush, similar to what we did when we played Faulk. When Bush gets on a linebacker, he runs routes well and is explosive. There are various calls a linebacker can use to help him when he is outmatched in coverage. He can tell a defensive end to "butch" the running back on the way to the passer or he can combo or switch responsibilities with a safety on his side.

Mike: One theme heard from players this week is the idea that Bush could take a 3-yard checkdown and take it to the house. Receiver Brandon Marshall was in that category, too. So making sure to limit yards-after-catch is a focus this week for the Patriots. Up front, the Dolphins are bigger at guard after moving tackle Vernon Carey (6-foot-5, 340 pounds) inside. They also start a rookie center in Pouncey, whom the Patriots liked a lot coming out of the draft. That battle inside -- Haynesworth, Wilfork & Co. on Pouncey and the guards -- will be fun to watch.

Patriots' offense vs. Dolphins' defense

Mike: One of the big storylines this preseason has been the connection between quarterback Tom Brady and receiver Chad Ochocinco. The time for experimenting is over, and you figure Ochocinco will be on the field quite a bit Monday.

Tedy: Yes, and you'll notice right away whether Brady has confidence in him. In the preseason, I thought he was forcing it to Ochocinco, but now in the regular season, if Tom doesn't have confidence in it, he'll just go to other places and Ochocinco will just be running ghost routes out there. It's obviously important that they're on the same page, and we'll see how far they come.

Mike: While there are some questions with how Ochocinco might fit, the tight ends have looked sharp. It's not hard to envision Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez becoming big parts of the offense.

Tedy: The Dolphins have two good corners, so you figure they'll be matched up against the receivers, and can those receivers get open? If not, you're looking to the inside, where Gronkowski and Hernandez do some of their best work. They could have some opportunities in this game, matched up against a safety or linebacker, which should be a win for the Patriots most of the time. Look for the Patriots' tight ends to make an impact Monday night.

Mike: As for the Dolphins' defense, this is a unit that has some size up front that should challenge the Patriots' line. When considering that the Patriots might be without starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (back injury), it might thrust first-round pick Nate Solder right into the spotlight.

Tedy: A lot of people haven't talked about the Dolphins at all. They just figure the Patriots and Jets will come out of this division, and the Dolphins are not getting a lot of respect. But this is a solid unit. Along the defensive line, you have Kendall Langford, Paul Soliai and Randy Starks, with last year's first-round pick Jared Odrick rotating in there. They get after it from a front-seven aspect.

TBD
Tight end Rob Gronkowski is likely to see plenty of action Monday night -- and throughout the season.

Mike: Cameron Wake is the leader from a pass-rush perspective, with 14 sacks last season.

Tedy: They'll move him around and get him in certain matchups one-on-one. He gets after it. When he turns that corner and dips that shoulder, he'll be in Tom Brady's lap if the Patriots aren't careful. You look at the other linebackers -- Koa Misi now in his second year, Karlos Dansby one of the best in the business and Kevin Burnett is a free-agent addition. That's solid. Then you look at the cornerbacks -- Vontae Davis and Sean Smith -- and this is a good defense. I think the Patriots realize this, even though it's a unit that doesn't get a lot of respect.

Mike: Big and physical is what stands out to me, so if I'm the Patriots, a big part of this game is how the line responds in warm conditions. Are the players in condition? Can they control the line? How much can veteran Brian Waters give them after signing just this week? Those are some of the questions from this perspective.

Tedy: And we've reached this point without even mentioning a top nemesis of the Patriots over the years, Jason Taylor. He's back with the Dolphins. I think all Patriots fans remember the battles he's had with Matt Light and how Taylor has won his fair share. These guys are both getting up in age. Taylor isn't an every-down player anymore. Once third-and-long comes up, in comes Taylor, so watch out for that.

Mike: Let's make our predictions now. To me, Henne is the big wild card in the game. If he limits mistakes, I could envision a scenario in which the Dolphins win. I see a close game, and the better-conditioned team has the best chance to win. I'm expecting liberal substitutions from Bill Belichick and for him to use all 46 players on the game-day roster. With the ability to start quickly and balance out the offensive attack, I like the Patriots, 24-17.

Tedy: With the first game of the season, you're talking about the unknown. The Dolphins have been preparing for this game for a long time. Sideline adjustments will be critical. Recognizing what game-plan formations and defenses the Dolphins show, then having the ability to make the proper adjustments and get them relayed to the players on the sideline in between offensive or defensive series will be key. This game will be tight. Patriots win 27-21.

Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th-anniversary team. Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.