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Three Underrated Areas That Will Make Or Break The Patriots’ 2022 Season Opener

For the Patriots season opener against Miami, major, highly discussed factors, like the quarterbacks, the matchups between the Patriots’ secondary and Tyreek Hill and Jalen Waddle, etc… However, the more underrated factors could be equally important

It is officially game week for the Patriots, and as we look forward to the opener against Miami, everybody is talking about a few obvious talking points, ones that are sure to influence the game: Mac Jones, the offensive line, the rookie cornerbacks, etc. However, as with any matchup, little things will have a big impact. Here, I take a look at what some of these might be.

Can The Patriots Prevent Costly And Unnecessary Penalties?

The Patriots under Bill Belichick have been all about running a tight, mistake-free ship. In general, they have had very few penalties season after season, but last season was an exception. Whether it was holding penalties, false starts, or unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, there were a number of mistakes that cost the Patriots some critical moments in games. Against the Dolphins, this was especially true, with the Patriots committing eight penalties in both games.

With a struggling offensive line in this training camp, it is a legitimate concern that the holds and false starts will continue. The Patriots will need to make sure their hits are timely and well placed, that their blocking technique is proper and they know when to let go. In the second game against the Dolphins, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Brandon Bolden on a fourth down ruined a stop that could have altered the game and allowed points instead on that drive. In general, these things just need to be tightened.

Another major reason why this is important is the effect that penalties can have on down and distance. Mac and the offense struggle quite a bit when they are behind the sticks, and third-and-long situations are disadvantageous for an offense that hasn’t quite established a deep threat. Penalties certainly don’t help there.

Who Will Win The Field Position Battle?

The Patriots got in trouble multiple times last season for having to construct longer drives then their opponents, and this played a big role in their games against the Dolphins. The most glaring example of this was Week 18, where a potential game-winning drive was nearly doomed from the start because it started inside the five-yard line.

Part of this does depend on the offenses, and whether they can prevent three-and-outs, and whether the defense can force them. Turnovers will be a key factor, and while in general the Patriots did well with ball security, against the Dolphins, it was the exact opposite. Summing the two games, the Patriots had five turnovers to the Dolphins’ one turnover. In two games that went down right to the wire, the turnovers, in addition to deciding field position, set up or terminated important drives and were likely the difference between a Patriots sweep of Miami and a Miami sweep of the Patriots.

The other important factor here is special teams. This is likely an area in which the Patriots should have the edge, as long as they can stay out of trouble with penalties. They have a punter in Jake Bailey who had the seventh best average in the NFL last year, at 47.3 yards/punt, and had 23 punts inside the 20-yard line. If the Patriots can avoid blocked punts (they had three last year), they can leverage Bailey to flip the field. It is worth noting, though, that Dolphins punter Thomas Morestead isn’t far behind, with an average around 47.1 and 18 punts inside the 20-yard line. Having solid punt coverage is also needed, but with Matthew Slater and rookie speedster Brenden Schooler leading the charge on that unit, they should be just fine there.

Can The Linebackers Keep Up With The Dolphins Running Game?

A big issue for the Patriots against the Dolphins, but also down the stretch was their inability to keep up with Miami’s running game. In their week 18 game, Tua Tagovailoa had only 109 yards passing, and the Dolphins generated a majority of their offense with the run. What was even more bothersome was the fact that Duke Johnson, who was 31st in the league coming in with respect to yards per game, had 117 yards and a touchdown. With him, as well as even Tua himself, the Patriots just weren’t able to keep up from a speed perspective.

With Raheem Mostert and Chase Edmonds heading up the attack this year, the unit gets much more dangerous, and Tua’s dual threat and ability to pick the right plays to run, a lot of burden will be put on the linebackers in terms of anticipating these threats. While the Dolphins have an incredible duo of receivers in Waddle and Hill, that duo’s ability to make the most of their talents will hinge on whether the Dolphins have a legitimate running threat to back it up.

Through an up-and-down training camp, the linebackers for the Patriots have been an high-performing group. Matt Judon is following up a pro bowl season and looks to continue to be a threat in pass rush and against the running game. Ja’Whaun Bentley is a leader in the locker room and has improved his tackling and rushing ability quite a bit. Mack Wilson is proving to be a great acquisition, impressing with both his speed and intelligence. Furthermore, linebackers like Raekwon McMillan, Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings are showing themselves to be in the best form they’ve been at in New England. The Patriots have prioritized speed this offseason, and have a much more threatening linebacker core as a result.

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