For the Patriots, many things will look different than the norm as they open the 2016 season. They will have a different starting quarterback, at least one new starting offensive lineman and a couple new defensive starters as well. Traveling to Arizona to face a Super Bowl contending team is not the ideal way to open the season, but the Patriots will do just that on Sunday night. In light of the new faces, especially on offense, the most important thing for the Patriots to do is slow down the Cardinals vaunted defensive line.
That defensive line consists of old-friend Chandler Jones, rookie Robert Nkemdiche, Corey Peters, Calais Campbell and several other formidable defenders. The three biggest players of emphasis for New England should be Campbell, Jones and Nkemdiche.
Campbell is a 300-pound behemoth of a defensive tackle that can push the pocket and also be strong against the run. He isn’t easily moved and the interior of the Patriots offensive line will be tested early and often by him. If Campbell gets into a rhythm and plays well, it will be extremely difficult for the Patriots to run the ball or for Jimmy Garoppolo to survey the middle of the field. That would make winning difficult for any offense, but the margin for error for the Patriots is slimmer in Garoppolo’s first ever start.
In Jones and Nkemdiche, Arizona has two players that can disrupt the passing lane on every down. New England fans are familiar with the work of Jones, who although was not always dominant as he projected, he still put up great numbers and can get after the quarterback. His long arms and good burst off the snap allow him to either make plays directly on the quarterback or bat balls down at the line once they are thrown. He normally plays defensive end, which means either Marcus Cannon or Nate Solder will have his hands full come Sunday.
Nkemdiche is a rookie that if talent was the only determining factor in draft status would have been a top ten pick. He’s a freak of an athlete at 6’5” and 293 pounds. The Cardinals can elect to use him either inside or outside along the defensive line and he will present problems for the Patriots at either spot. He didn’t have a ton of preseason action, but he looked solid against the Texans and it is easy to assume that the talent he flashed in college will translate to the pro level.
Having all three of these players will give Arizona an advantage up front on Sunday. The Patriots are not completely overmatched, but they will have their hands full. The starting situation at the offensive line is not completely certain yet. Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon and David Andrews are definite starters, but the guard position is not locked down. Josh Kline and Joe Thuney looked good together during training camp and the preseason, but with Kline off to Philadelphia, New England could give Jonathan Cooper and Shaq Mason time there.
Winning in Arizona in week one would be difficult even if Tom Brady was playing, but the matchup problems are amplified without New England’s Hall of Fame signal caller. Much of the pressure for the Patriots this weekend will fall squarely on the shoulders of the offensive line. If they can win the battles against the Cardinals front seven, the Patriots can go into Arizona and leave with a win. If the Cardinals get the upper hand up front, it will be a long Sunday night for New England.