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Patriots at Dolphins: Previewing Antonio Brown’s use, New England weakness, and Rob Gronkowki’s future

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New England Patriots v Miami Dolphins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Miami Dolphins look to put their 59-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens behind them on Sunday when they get back on the field for their Week 2 contest. It is not an easier opponent they welcome into Hard Rock Stadium, however, as the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots come to South Florida. The first of two meetings between the division rivals, Miami is one of the biggest home underdogs in league history. This game has the potential to get away from the Dolphins quickly.

But, weird things always happen to the Patriots in Miami, and the Dolphins will need that trend to continue this week. Who are the 2019 Patriots? To get a better idea, I turned to Bernd Buchmasser, managing editor of SB Nation’s Patriots team site, Pats Pulpit, to get a closer look at New England ahead of the 105th regular season meeting between the clubs. My questions are in bold, with Buchmasser’s answers following each.

1. Should we expect Antonio Brown to be anything more than a decoy this week? Will he be up to speed on the Patriots’ offense and will they ensure he is a part of the game plan against Miami?

Brown traveled to Miami with the team, so there is at least a theoretical chance he plays on Sunday. As to his workload, comparing the situation to last year’s acquisition of Josh Gordon is a popular method of trying to project how much playing time he may or may not see: Gordon was acquired via trade on September 17, traveled with the team to Detroit six days later, but was ultimately declared a game-day inactive; he made his debut one week later (against Miami) and played 18 of 81 offensive snaps. There is one major difference that needs to be considered, however. Gordon was dealing with a hamstring injury when he was acquired — Brown is fully healthy.

I therefore expect his situation to be only somewhat similar to Gordon’s last year: he will be declared active, but play a somewhat limited role in the offense. While Brown is one of the best wide receivers in all of football, the Patriots’ offense is one of the league’s most challenging. Players also don’t earn Tom Brady’s trust over night, and the veteran wideout remains a work in progress in this regard. Sunday’s game will be another step in that direction, but that. step probably won’t be all too big.

2. Obviously, the Patriots dispatched the Steelers with relative ease in Week 1, coming away with the 33-3 victory. What were the keys to that victory and where can Miami make adjustments to slow down New England’s offense?

The Patriots played a terrific complementary game against Pittsburgh: the defense was stout all night long by shutting down the running game and playing tight man-to-man coverage across the board; the offense took advantage of its opportunities and challenged its opponent through the air; special teams did not allow any big returns and was very good on place kicks and punts. Add it all up and you get a blowout win against an opponent that found itself in a whole early and subsequently had to play the game by New England’s rules (e.g. trying to move the football by passing against one of the NFL’s elite secondaries).

What can the Dolphins take away from that game defensively? It is hard to project what the Patriots will do on Sunday, but two things Miami should try to do is a) try to make the unit one-dimensional by focusing on shutting down the running game, and b) challenge an offensive line that will miss its starting center (David Andrews, injured reserve) and likely also right tackle (Marcus Cannon). If I were Brian Flores, I’d try to go with big personnel up front but also send blitzes from the second level to challenge New England’s chemistry and communication up front. It is a risky plan — Tom Brady is just too good, and he figures out the weaknesses in blitzing concepts rather quickly — but I think the Dolphins need to take risks if they want to slow down this attack.

3. Are there weaknesses in a defense that held Pittsburgh to just three points?

The Patriots played a very good defensive game against the Steelers, but it was far from perfect. The unit, for example, put inconsistent pressure on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and also did have some lapses in its man-to-man coverage — using more rub routes or other man-beaters could have helped produce more big plays down the field. The main issues for the team, however, might have been a) its inability to produce extended drives, and b) unwillingness to stick to the ground game. Both resulted in the Patriots defense getting off the field rather quickly at times, something that cannot happen against a team like the Patriots. One way or another, the Dolphins need to string together positive plays and keep the football for extended periods of time.

4. Who will be the surprise impact player for the Patriots?

Last week, New England did not have a tight end on the field for 25 of its offensive snaps. So naturally, I’m picking one of the tight ends to be the surprise impact player — because, let’s be honest, a tight end making an impact in this offense would qualify as such. With Matt LaCosse probably still on a snap count after being limited in practice due to an ankle injury that essentially forced him to sit out last week’s game (he was active but did not play), Ryan Izzo is projected to again be the number one option at the position. While primarily a blocker, I can see Izzo get his chances in the passing game as well. And, who knows, maybe he does come away with a big catch or some big blocks in the running game. Now that I’ve said it, though, he will probably be inactive.

5. Typically, early in the season, I like to see what are realistic expectations for fans for each team, but given this is Patriots week, that answer is going to be a Super Bowl appearance if not another win. Instead, we will ask about the next player who could be added to the roster. Do you have any realistic expectation that (a skinny looking) Rob Gronkowski will come back to the team at some point?

While there have been a lot of rumors about Gronkowski returning at some point, I am not all that optimistic. After all, the press conference about his “next career step” he held in late August made it clear that football was repeatedly bringing him down. While he pointed out that he might return when the desire to play comes back, he did not offer a timeline and generally sounded happy with his current life. Anything is possible, of course, but the signs — from his injury history to his public statements — make me believe that the Patriots have seen the last of Gronk, at least in 2019.