Finally, it took long enough, but it’s finally time to talk about football that counts. After an offseason that included blockbuster trades, free agent signings, pointless quarterback debates, and a scandal good enough for an ESPN 30 for 30, the Dolphins are preparing for their first game of the season.
This will be the first of my weekly column that will run throughout the season, breaking down some key matchups in each of Miami’s games. This is a segment on the DolphinsTalk Pregame Show I do every week with my wonderful co-host Tom Ernisse. So, this column will work as some preparation work for me, and hopefully, for you as well.
Matchup 1: The Dolphins vs. Expectations
When was the last time the Dolphins were viewed as a team expected to beat New England? This doesn’t account for all the times they were a trendy upset because Brady and the Patriots struggled to play in Miami.
I can’t recall the last time Miami was expected to beat New England because their roster was legitimately better. However, I’ve included this obvious cop-out matchup because Miami is a team notorious for playing down to their competition.
But Miami’s track record in living up to expectations isn’t great. They had some real momentum coming off a 10-6 season in 2020 and proceeded to start 2021 1-7, which put them in a hole they couldn’t dig out of despite an eight-game winning streak.
The Dolphins are supposed to win Sunday’s game. If you look at all the major media outlets predictions, they’re supposed to be a playoff team this season. It’s not the end of the world if they lose to New England, but a win is a sign Miami can handle the somewhat high expectations they have this season.
Matchup 2: Austin Jackson vs. Matthew Judon
Okay, enough of that nonsense; let’s talk about football. Miami improved its offensive line this offseason, but they’ve decided to make Austin Jackson the starting right tackle.
Jackson showed some growth when he was moved to guard last season, but it’s hard to undersell his bad numbers. Most fans know the classic numbers, but even pouring into some more in-depth numbers paints a stark picture.
According to Sports Info Solutions, Jackson accounted for -0.98 points added above average last season. His 3.2 blown block rate finished behind only Liam Eichenberg — another starter this season, whoops — and the now departed Jesse Davis.
Jackson will likely see a lot of Patriots top-pass rusher Matthew Judon on Sunday. Judon made a pro-bowl in his first season with New England and accounted for 12.5 sacks.
Judon’s advanced numbers are above average, unlike Jackson’s, and his film is just as impressive.
Miami’s biggest weakness is likely still the offensive line, so if there’s one area of the game New England can tip the scales in its favor, it’s this one. Belichick is too smart of a coach not to try and exploit his best match up front.
Jackson will have his work cut out on Sunday, and his performance will go a long way to deciding the game’s outcome.
Matchup 3: Jacobi Myers vs. Whoever Miami’s Slot Cornerback Is
Since I firmly believe Miami has the advantage, on paper, for most matchups, it’s more prudent to look at another spot where New England could exploit the Dolphins.
The Patriots have made some poor decisions at receiver for quite a while now, but Jakobi Myers, a former UDFA from NC State, is one of their few hits. To complicate matters for Miami, he wins in the slot — a ton.
No receiver got more slot reps than Myers last season, where he caught 75 of 110 targets for 754 of his 866 total yard output the previous season, according to The 33rd Team’s Edge Tool.
However, injuries have complicated matters. Jones has been on the PUP list for at least four weeks, and Needham has been limited at practice with a quad injury. That leaves Miami with Keion Crossen, Noah Igbinoghene, and Kader Kohou having to take important reps.
If Needham’s healthy, he could still occupy the slot, which creates a mismatch outside. Plus, with Needham being banged up for a couple of weeks, it’s fair to question just how well he’ll hold up against Myers.
Suppose Needham does end up outside or not playing on Sunday. Unless Miami asks Howard to follow Myers everywhere, they’ll be relying on either Crossen, an underperforming journeyman, Igbinoghene, an underperforming youngster, or Kohou, a UDFA from a Division II school.
Those are harsh evaluations, but they’re also true. Maybe one of them surprises and ends up being a much-needed depth option this season, but if New England is going to win through the air, this is the matchup they’ll attack.