MIAMI — Reggie Bush enjoys taking pitchouts. He likes sweeps and traps and picking a hole up the middle behind zone blocking.
So which play does he prefer?
“My favorite running play?” he says. “Hand me the ball.”
The Miami Dolphins plan to do that a lot this season in the hope their new running back can carry them to the playoffs.
Bush will likely take his first handoff early in Monday night’s season opener against the New England Patriots, who will be ready with a 350-pound response in run-stuffer Albert Haynesworth.
The Dolphins made their biggest acquisition of the summer when they traded for Bush shortly after the NFL lockout ended. The Patriots traded for Haynesworth the same day.
Miami was looking to jump-start a sputtering offense desperate for a breakaway threat. New England wanted to fortify a leaky defense that undermined the productivity of Tom Brady’s potent offense last year.
The success of the two teams’ attempts to upgrade will help determine this year’s AFC East race. The Patriots (14-2 in 2010) want to repeat as division champions and then win a postseason game for the first time since 2007. The Dolphins (7-9) are eager to improve enough to make the playoffs for only the second time since 2001.
If Bush and Haynesworth don’t play a big role in Monday’s outcome, other newcomers might.
The Dolphins, seeking more big plays from their defense, added linebacker Kevin Burnett and brought back linebacker Jason Taylor for his third stint in Miami.
The Patriots, whose third-down defense was dismal last year, acquired pass rushers Shaun Ellis, Andre Carter and Mark Anderson. They also provided Brady with a tantalizing new target in Chad Ochocinco, who teams up with Wes Welker and Deion Branch.
“We’ve added new guys; other teams have added new guys,” Brady says. “How it all comes together — that’s why we’re playing the games.”
Game 1 will help clarify Bush’s role in the Miami attack directed by another newcomer, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. Coach Tony Sparano insists the 203-pound, injury-prone Bush will get the most touches of any Dolphins back, and that includes plunges between the tackles into the Patriots’ 970-pound front three of Haynesworth, Vince Wilfork and Mike Wright.
“We’re going to try to get Reg involved different ways,” Sparano says. “A good way to get him involved is to turn and hand him the ball.”
Bush missed eight games last season in New Orleans with a leg injury. The only time the former Heisman Trophy winner played all 16 games in a season was his rookie year in 2006.
But he embraced the trade to Miami because he wanted to be the feature back, and he’s eager to show skeptics he can handle a heavy workload.
“I love the fact that there are doubters out there, because those are the people that drive me to strive and be even greater,” Bush says. “Obviously I hear it; I’m not deaf. I understand where it comes from. I’ve had my share of injuries throughout my career. All I can do is give my all.”
Bush says he likes running up the middle because it’s the shortest route to the goal line, and he had success between the tackles during the exhibition season.
“He’s running hard this year,” Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo says. “Watching the preseason, he’s breaking a lot of tackles so he adds a whole other dynamic to the offense. He can break a 2-yard run and take it to the house.”
Bush is an even bigger threat on the flank, where he has more room to make moves. With 294 career receptions, he provides a valuable safety valve for quarterback Chad Henne, who has been prone to making bad decisions under pressure.
Now, when Ellis, Carter or Anderson bear down on Henne, he can simply swing the ball out to Bush.
Bill Belichick’s Patriots have never faced Bush, but the coach is well aware of the challenge involved.
“Reggie is a very dynamic player, a great receiver as a running back,” Belichick says. “He’s really part receiver, part running back and a hard guy to match up against. He has a lot of explosive plays. You give him a little space and he can gain a lot of yards in a hurry.”
Miami will likely need some big plays to keep up with Brady’s crew. Last year the Patriots led the NFL with an average of 32.4 points per game, and they beat the Dolphins twice while outscoring them 79-21.
The Dolphins believe they’ve upgraded their pass rush with the reacquisition of NFL active sack leader Taylor, the addition of Burnett and the return of 2010 first-round draft Jared Odrick, who missed all but one game last season because of a leg injury.
Taylor leads all active players with 132.5 sacks, and 10.5 have come against Brady.
“You’ve got to pressure the guy,” Taylor says, “because he’s the best in the league, period.”
While the game will include plenty of newcomers to the rivalry, count on familiar foes to play a role, too.