Season opener looms for Dolphins
the palm beach post | September 03,2014
Miami Dolphins wide receiver Matt Hazel runs the ball for a touchdown during the second half of an NFL preseason game against the St. Louis Rams, Thursday in Miami Gardens, Fla.
DAVIE, Fla. -- This being Week 1 in the NFL, it would be absurd to refer to anything as a “must-win” game.
So place this one in the “highly recommended you don’t blow it” folder.
When the 2014 NFL schedule was released, there was no need to strain one’s eyes for a game to circle on the Dolphins’ list. The top line, Patriots at Dolphins, 1 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 7, was the show-stopper.
Only twice in the past 17 seasons has Miami opened against a serious contender in the AFC East. Miami lost both, falling in 2011 to New England, the eventual division champion, and in 2008 to the New York Jets.
The Dolphins recovered in 2008 to win the East, so Sunday obviously won’t make or break the season ... but it should set the tone. Since 2004, no AFC East team other than those Dolphins has started 0-1 and still won the division. New England has won the East each of those seasons, each time after starting 1-0.
‘’We’ve talked to the guys throughout camp about getting off to a fast start,” coach Joe Philbin said.
Opening against New England is nobody’s idea of easing into the regular season, although Philbin added, “I don’t know that it really matters” where the two Patriots-Dolphins meetings fall on the schedule.
Perhaps it matters to defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, who knows that even though quarterback Tom Brady is 37, he’s still Tom Brady.
‘’You can look at it two ways,” Coyle said.
On the plus side: “We’ve known this since the spring and you’re always able to spend more time on your first opponent. ... I think they (Dolphins defensive players) have a better feeling now than they would have if this was Game 5 or 6 during the regular season.”
On the minus side: “Because there is the degree of unknown, you’ve got to be careful how many new things you are going to do because you are not sure exactly what you might be getting and you spend time on things that you might not see.”
Of course, Brady and coach Bill Belichick also have had extra time to prepare. Compounding matters is that the Dolphins have 12 rookies, including six undrafted free agents, a new offensive line and a new system under offensive coordinator Bill Lazor.
So what if Belichick doesn’t know exactly what to expect from Lazor’s attack? Maybe Lazor doesn’t, either.
‘’I don’t think of it as adjusting anymore,” Lazor said of the installation of his system. “I think we’re here. We’ve been working at it a long time. We’ve put a lot of time and effort in, players and coaches. So this is who we are and it’s our turn now to step out and prove it.”
It was pointed out to Lazor that Belichick’s M.O. is to pick an opposing player and try to take him out of the game. Last year, tight end Charles Clay averaged three receptions for 21.5 yards against New England, compared to 51 yards vs. everybody else.
‘’I’ve seen the film from last year,” Lazor said. “We know what plans have come against us. We know what’s worked against certain people. Hopefully, all of the time we’re spending in the meeting room, we’re doing the right things as far as how we plan against it. There’s no doubt about it, when certain guys are taken out by double coverage or for whatever reason, others have to step up and they understand that.”
Coyle has his own tight end concerns. Tight ends gave the Dolphins heartaches early in 2013, catching touchdown passes in the first four games. Monday, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who skipped the exhibitions coming off knee surgery, said he will play against the Dolphins. In addition, New England just traded for Tim Wright, who had 571 yards and five touchdowns receiving for Tampa Bay last season.
Coyle’s other headache is being without defensive end Dion Jordan and safety Reshad Jones while they serve monthlong suspensions for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. Jimmy Wilson is expected to start in place of Jones. Coyle indicated that players such as ends Derrick Shelby and Terrence Fede and linebacker Chris McCain could pick up the slack for Jordan.
‘’Early in the season, particularly down here, you’re going to have to go into games where you’re going to roll people through,” Coyle said. “It’s hard to play 60-70 plays in the conditions that we’ll be playing in.”
The forecast calls for 87 degrees Sunday afternoon. Meaning substituting isn’t highly recommended. It qualifies as a must.
Hal Habib writes for The Palm Beach Post. E-mail: hal(underscore)habib(at)pbpost.com.
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