The days of manufactured speculation stories are gone and the days of NFL football are back. The Miami Dolphins are ready to open up the most promising season in years against the AFC East juggernaut, the New England Patriots.
The 2014 Dolphins have potential to do big things this season, but this team has to first focus on the task at hand and beat the Patriots this Sunday. Doing so will shock the world and earn Miami some national respect and recognition with a victory (or we'll hear "what's wrong with the Patriots?!").
Excitement is on the horizon, so to add to that, I have provided you with five things to watch in the Dolphins one o'clock season opener at Sun Life Stadium.
No Philip Wheeler
Many fans will have their wishes come true with Philip Wheeler's absence against the Patriots. However, Wheeler could have been very disruptive in this game.
Last season, Wheeler played the weakside linebacker spot. This spot put Wheeler in a position where his deficiencies, such inability to cover or play comfortably in space, were obvious. This made Wheeler a liability when he was on the field, and a team as smart as the Patriots was able to exploit him.
However, Wheeler was shifted to the strongside linebacker spot, previously held by Koa Misi, when Misi shifted to middle linebacker as a part of the Dolphins LB shuffle this offseason (putting each in a more effective position).
In this more comfortable position, Wheeler is able to play to his strengths.
Wheeler is very good at creating pressure and blitzing. In the 4-3 under system that the Dolphins run (seen in the graphic below), the SAM LB, Wheeler, is near the line of scrimmage and is able to blitz much more often and is caught up in much less space.
The pressure Wheeler would've been able to put on Brady will be tough to replace, but nonetheless the Dolphins will need to do it.
Who will replace Wheeler? My money is on Jason Trusnik. Trusnik is a powerful run defender who struggles in coverage, but Trusnik wouldn't be asked to do much coverage-wise and would be subbed out when the nickel package comes on the field in obvious passing situations.
However, if Rob Gronkowski does in fact play, Trusnik will be forced to cover much more often when the Patriots play double tight end sets.
It will be interesting to see how much Chris McCain is used. McCain thrived as a SAM in the 43 under in the preseason, but McCain is a rookie nonetheless and will be facing a level of competition he has never seen before.
The Dolphins will likely limit McCain to situations where he can simply rush the passer and not have to think.
With Wheeler out, it will be interesting to see...
Who Tom Brady picks on
Brady is notorious for picking your weakest link and consistently attacking it.
Last year it was an injured Nolan Carroll and Philip Wheeler.
This year it will likely be Jimmy Wilson at free safety (Wilson is inexperienced in the position), Will Davis when he sees the field in the nickel package or Wheeler's replacement at SLB.
A team is only as strong as its weakest link.
Tom Brady will find it.
Tom Brady will test it.
If the Dolphins survive, they need to knock Brady out of his rhythm and create consistent pressure on the future Hall of Famer. An integral part of that will be...
Earl Mitchell and the Dolphins DTs
Pressure up the gut is of utmost importance when facing Brady due to his ability to avoid edge pressure by stepping up in the pocket.
Earl Mitchell, a young, athletic DT was brought in to eat blockers in the run. But Mitchell can shoot gaps and create pressure right in Brady's face, which is the kind of discomfort that could cause a game-changing turnover.
Jared Odrick and Randy Starks also have the potential to create this essential pressure. Odrick is very good at shooting gaps and getting in the backfield. Starks is simply an angry animal who is ready to be released from his cage.
Harassing Brady is key to victory. The Dolphins have one elite edge pass rusher in Cameron Wake, one future Pro Bowl DE in Olivier Vernon, and two reserve guys who can create discomfort for Brady.
It is imperative that the Dolphins can create pressure with a four-man rush in order to keep the field covered as Brady will find the weak spot when a blitz is shown. But when a blitz is fired, look for Koa Misi or Chris McCain to be head-hunting.
If the Dolphins can manifest the up-the-gut pass rush and harass/disrupt Brady then an upset becomes much more manageable.
How the Dolphins cover Patriots RB Shane Vereen
The Patriot weapon that strikes the most fear in me, other than Brady, is RB Shane Vereen.
Vereen is one of the best pass-catching backs in the NFL, and linebacker pass coverage is the area I'm most concerned with on the Dolphins defense.
If the Dolphins try to match a LB on Vereen, he will undoubtedly torch Miami for one or two big plays. The Dolphins will likely need to match a safety or cornerback on Vereen.
Regardless of how he is played, watch for Vereen to receive a large amount of touches and be a frequent target of Brady on checkdowns, designed routes and screens.
New wrinkles of Bill Lazor's offense
The Dolphins will field their full offensive arsenal for the first time in 2014, and there will be no restrictions on the offense as there were in the preseason.
In fact, Dolphins' OC Bill Lazor will likely unleash a few new wrinkles on Bill Belichick and the Patriots.
We should see a few interesting play designs and more than a few plays that produce chunk yardage.
Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, Brandon Gibson, Jarvis Landry, Rishard Matthews, Charles Clay, Dion Sims, Knowshon Moreno, Lamar Miller.
Pick five and attack.
And if that's not difficult enough to defend, try to stop them when they are being used creatively and the plays being called aren't predictable.
Also, Lazor will likely call a few designed running plays for quarterback Ryan Tannehill. If Tannehill proves to defenses that he is a threat to produce yards on the ground then it will open things up tremendously for the rest of the offense.
Will the Dolphins be able to keep up with the Patriots offensive production? This may finally be the year where the answer is yes.