The Patriots have had more than four months to prepare for this one.
Ever since the NFL released the 2014 regular-season schedule back in April, Bill Belichick and his staff have known that they would face the Dolphins on the road to open the season. And that extra time to focus on Week 1 without any other regular-season games getting in the way has been a gift.
The Patriots knew as far back as January, even before the schedules came out, that their preparations for Miami were going to be significantly different than any of the work they did on the Dolphins offense last season. Whatever defensive game plans New England had a year ago would need a significant overhaul.
Not long after the Dolphins 2013 season ended, they hired former Eagles quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor to be their offensive coordinator. Working under Chip Kelly last year, Lazor helped turn Nick Foles into one of the most efficient quarterbacks in football while operating one of its fastest offenses -- no small feat.
Now in Miami, Lazor will look to do the same with Ryan Tannehill.
Though the Dolphins have been reluctant this preseason to show the high-speed no-huddle offense that helped Philadelphia win the NFC East last year, Lazor has said that he plans to run things quickly on South Beach.
“I think we’re getting faster," Lazor said Monday. "I think you see it on the practice field. Yesterday, when we went out and practiced, I thought our pass skelly was faster. I think guys are moving. We want guys that can play in space. We want guys who when they get the ball in their hands, (they) know what to do with it. We want guys that can separate and that’s really what we’re pushing toward. I think every single day we’re seeing it get better.”
Despite last year's success, Lazor's offense may not be a carbon copy of what he helped orchestrate in Philadelphia. Aside from Kelly, Lazor has also worked under Joe Gibbs and Mike Holmgren so a hybrid of those coaches' styles could be in play for the Dolphins.
What might that look like? Perhaps Lazor's offense will be one that makes use of its versatile H-back-type Charles Clay -- a position Gibbs helped popularize with the Redskins -- while employing the quick-hitting pass plays that were staples of Holmgren's West Coast offenses.
And, of course, they'll be fast. Miami will try to play like the Philly team that ran opposing defenses ragged last season and confused them with variable formations.
Even though Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace said his team's offense only showed about "12-to-15 percent" of its playbook in the preseason, Belichick said he's already seen similarities between Lazor's Dolphins and Kelly's Eagles.
"I would say that they look very similar to the way the Eagles look offensively -- different than what Miami looked like last year," Belichick said in a conference call Tuesday. "I’d say [Lazor's imprint on the offense is] quite substantial."
Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said that the preparation for Miami has been two-pronged.
First, New England has focused on evaluating the Dolphins on-the-field personnel, which in large part is very similar to what the Patriots saw last season. Tannehill, Clay and Wallace are still around as are receiver Brian Hartline and running back Lamar Miller. The Miami offensive line has been shaken up, and former Bronco Knowshon Moreno is now in the mix at running back, which provides a bit of a different wrinkle, but it's a group that's largely unchanged since 2013.
Then comes the assessment of the offensive system.
"You're going to take a look at what Bill Lazor has done with the new system as the new offensive coordinator and what they’ve run here in preseason and go back and try to trace that a little bit, the history and background of the offense," Patricia said, "and try to figure out how it’s going to apply. Certainly, obviously what I think they’ve done a great job of this year through the preseason is the quarterback position, with Ryan Tannehill being able to control and run the offense and do a good job with the different looks and the different problems that they set up with this type of offense, and really trying to do a great job of being a good decision maker as a quarterback and get the ball distributed to a lot of their skill players."
Tannehill hasn't shown he can be the type of quarterback that Foles was last season when Foles threw 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions. *Then again, neither had Foles until he did it.) One area in which Tannehill is better, Belichick said, is his speed as a ball-carrier. In Philadelphia's option offense, Foles wasn't a huge threat to run, rushing 57 times for 221 yards and three touchdowns.
Tannehill, meanwhile, was once a wideout at Texas A&M and has burned the Patriots with his legs in the past. In an offense that provides its quarterback multiple reads and avenues to gash a defense on a play-to-play bases, Tannehill's wheels give the Patriots defense two more things about which to worry.
"He’s a dangerous scrambling quarterback if the receivers are covered and the pass rush doesn’t have him contained," Belichick said. "We’re very aware of him. He has excellent speed. He can run away from most defensive linemen and linebackers so keeping leverage and containing him is going to be a big part of us being successful against the Dolphins. We’re going to have to do a good job with that. I’m sure if he has a chance to keep it, he’ll keep it. If we take that away, then he’ll do something else. You have to defend everything in option football."
The Patriots have had the benefit of working against the Eagles in each of the last two training camps in joint practices and preseason games. Though whatever Kelly showed in those weeks was likely a vanilla version of his regular-season offense, the pace with which Kelly's offense practiced could help the Patriots be more ready for Lazor's in Miami.
After that, Patriots coaches will have to rely on all the work they did this preseason to try to prepare themselves for how a new coordinator's schemes will fit well-known Dolphins personnel.
It's all a fair amount of work, to be sure. But not unmanageable. Especially with four months to get ready.
"That’s the type of thing you do in the offseason when you have a little bit of extra time," Belichick said. "You see the schedule, you see who your opening games are with. That’s a good time to study things like that."