The Miami Dolphins will face off against the New England Patriots this Sunday, the first half of the annual home-and-home series between the two AFC East clubs. This year’s series will start in New England in Week 2, but will not finish until the Week 17 game in Miami.
To get ready for this early season contest, I had a chance to talk to Rich Hill from the Patriots blog Pats Pulpit, to get a closer look at New England, to include their defense, a question mark along the offensive line, and how you really cannot trust someone who has never eaten a strawberry.
Kevin Nogle (KN): Obviously, the sample size is small on Jimmy Garoppolo right now, but seem to believe he is the real deal. Is this a case of Matt Cassel looking good when Brady was out in 2008? What are the strengths and weaknesses of Garoppolo? And, what is wrong with Tom Brady to have never eaten a strawberry?
Rich Hill (RH): We have to remember that Cassel was playing with a roster that went 18-1 the prior year and benefit from one of the weakest schedules in the history of the NFL- they played AFC West with an 8-8 division champ and an NFC West with a 9-7 division champ. His three worst games- passer rating under 70.0- came against three division winners (albeit in two of his first three starts).
Garoppolo came out and looked very good against a team that reached the NFC Championship game last season and he did it without All Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski or starting left tackle Nate Solder or running back phenom Dion Lewis. He also hadn't had much time in practice with Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, both of whom were recovering from offseason surgeries.
Garoppolo is quick and he seems to understand how to go through his progressions and attack the weak spots in a defense. His big issue is that he's had to take a few passes in each game before settling down and getting to business. He's streaky in the sense that he's Tom Brady-esque when he's in a rhythm (perhaps you'll see it and shake your head), and merely adequate the rest of the time. He'll also struggles getting enough zip on passes towards the sideline and can see the ball drift towards the defender.
The fact that Garoppolo has probably eaten a strawberry is a strength, in my opinion, because now I don't trust Tom Brady at all.
KN: Rob Gronkowski has been limited in practice this week after missing last week's game. What do you think his status is for this week? Are you concerned, as Steve Buckley of the Boston Herald seemed to indicate on Friday, that the end of Gronk's career could be a lot sooner than people would have thought as these injuries seem to continue to pile up? (Bonus question to sneak another in here: How has Martellus Bennett fit into the offense thus far?)
RH: I don't think Gronkowski will play, or even if he does I wouldn't expect him to be 100%. He'd be on a snap count, if anything. I don't think there's anything serious about these injuries as the Patriots have been super cautious with Gronkowski since 2014. He could probably play if he needed to, but he doesn't have to. The season is long, the Patriots were fortunate to knock off the Cardinals and so their plan to start 2-2 just became more manageable. Why not give Gronk some extra rest?
Bennett's been great with the Patriots so far. In the preseason, he showed he could be a reliable receiver, and then in week 1 he showed he could be a dominant blocker. He hasn't been asked to fill both roles at once because the offensive line needed as much help as it could get versus the Cardinals. I would expect his role as a receiver to expand this week against the Dolphins.
KN: The offensive line seems like it should be a concern for New England. Nate Solder is limited in practice and Sebastian Vollmer is on the PUP list, so there are two big names that could/will miss this game. This could play straight into the strength of the Miami defense, who will be looking to use Ndamukong Suh, Cameron Wake, Jason Jones, and the rest of what should be a strong front four this year, to create havoc around Garoppolo. (They also should have been a strong unit last year, but let's not get into that here...) How did the offensive line hold up last week, and are they the biggest concern for the Patriots right now?
RH: The line was surprisingly okay last week. I predicted disaster since the line looked horrendous on paper. Cameron Fleming was a practice squad player last year and was starting left tackle. The guards were rookies Joe Thuney and Ted Karras. Center David Andrews is an undrafted sophomore. Marcus Cannon was last seen getting devoured by Von Miller in the playoffs.
Well, Fleming, Thuney, and Andrews helped form a fantastic left side of the line against the Cardinals. Karras and Cannon were pretty ugly, but Cannon suffered a leg injury early on so I'll give him a pass. The return of Solder is important to allow Fleming to kick over to the right side and that could really solidify the unit.
But, yes, until the line puts together a great five-player performance, they'll remain the biggest point of concern on the roster.
KN: When it comes to the Patriots, everyone focuses on the offense, but their defense could be really good this season, even with Rob Ninkovich missing the first four games. Depth may be an issue with the defense, but overall, they have the talent to be a very good group with players like Malcolm Butler, Shea McClellin, Logan Ryan, Chris Long, Barkevious Mingo, and Jonathan Freeny. Where do you see the strength on defense, and how would you game plan against them?
RH: I actually think the strength of the defense is the depth. They have three (or more) players at almost every position that I would feel comfortable if they had to start a game.
Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long, Trey Flowers (and Rob Ninkovich) at edge defender. Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins, and Shea McClellin at linebacker. Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Justin Coleman at cornerback. Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon at safety. Defensive tackle is the only real question mark with Malcom Brown and Alan Branch supported by rookie Vincent Valentine.
The Patriots defense is a difficult nut to crack because they aren't particularly great at any facet at the expense of another role. If I had to give the unit a report card, I'd say linebacker and safety get an A, while the others get a B+. I guess the best way would be to stay away from the middle of the field and to attack the Patriots in the flat and with out routes, forcing the cornerbacks to make plays in the open field.
KN: I have to imagine you went into last week believing a win was possible, but that a loss was just as, if not more, possible. Then, the Patriots came away with a win. Did that change your expectations for this four game Brady-less start? And, with an angry Brady coming back this year, do fans feel like this year is a success only if the team gets to the Super Bowl? (And, how does that feel? Seriously, 1984 was a long time ago.)
RH: I was actually wondering if the Patriots were punting week 1 after they rested Rob Gronkowski, so I'm as guilty as everyone. I originally thought the Patriots were going to go 2-2, but now that would be considered a disappointment since one of the losses was going to be at the hands of the Cardinals.
Every year is Super Bowl or bust for the Patriots. The team has reached the conference championship for five straight years and has just two Super Bowl appearances to show for it. While winning it would obviously be ideal, I think most just want to see the Patriots get over the hump and for every player to have another shot at a title.