The Miami Dolphins travel to New Orleans to do battle with the undefeated Saints on Monday Night Football in Week 4. The Dolphins, themselves undefeated, will be forced to prove their mettle on the road for the third time in only four weeks.
Here, we'll break down everything you need to know heading into Week 4. We will take you through division standings and an updated injury report, and we will highlight the areas in which Miami must improve if it wants to stake its claim as an elite team in front of a national television audience.
While most people were distracted during the offseason by New England's circus at the receiving positions, a few of us warned that the team was making clear strides on the defensive side of the football as well as in the running game. Now, three games into the season, the Patriots' formula for success looks more clear.
The Patriots defense allowed only 27 points to opposing offenses during the first three games of the season.
The team's tailbacks tallied 365 yards rushing (121.7 yards per game) at approximately 4.62 yards per carry, according to data gathered by Pro Football Focus (subscription required). The remainder of NFL tailbacks are collectively averaging 3.94 yards per carry and 86.1 total team rushing yards per game.
Against the Buccaneers, New England showed signs of improving chemistry between quarterback Tom Brady and his young receivers, as rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson combined for 93 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
With tight end Rob Gronkowski close to coming back, the Patriots continue to put a tremendous amount of top-down pressure on the rest of the division to keep up with them.
The New York Jets (2-1) and Buffalo Bills (1-2) faced each other in each team's second intradivision battle in the first three weeks of the season.
The game was competitive. The Jets jumped out to a 20-6 third-quarter lead, which the Bills found a way to erase by partway through the fourth quarter. Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith found Santonio Holmes for a 69-yard go-ahead touchdown with approximately nine minutes remaining in the game, and Bills rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel failed to answer.
Though he's easily as mistake-prone as his predecessor Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith is now on pace for over 4,200 yards passing this season on nearly eight yards per attempt. This last outing was by far his best of the season. Standout receivers Santonio Holmes and Stephen Hill each got over 100 yards receiving and a touchdown.
After being sacked only once in the first two games, completing over 68 percent of his passes and accumulating a 96 passer rating to go along with his 1-1 record, quarterback E.J. Manuel clearly regressed against a tough New York Jets defense. He was sacked eight times and completed well under 50 percent of his passes.
Miami's most significant injury development during the Falcons game was the knee injury suffered by star defensive end Cameron Wake. Wake injured his knee in the first quarter and was not able to return to the game.
According to Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Cameron Wake was diagnosed with a "mild" sprain of the medial collateral ligament. Though not particularly serious, that injury tends to keep players on the sideline for two or three weeks. Cameron Wake is a player who will prematurely speed along his own recovery by attempting to play through pain, but it remains to be seen whether the coaches will allow him to do so.
Wake's was not the only significant injury suffered during the game. Linebacker Koa Misi also missed part of the game with an injured shoulder. His ankle had already been a problem during the practice week, which earned him "questionable" status on the official injury report heading into the game. It does not appear likely he will be available to play against the New Orleans Saints.
Fellow linebacker Dannell Ellerbe also suffered a chest injury late in the Falcons game. The injury, though painful, did not prevent Ellerbe from returning to the game for Atlanta's final drives. He may end up limited in practice this week, but I expect he will return to the field during the game to set a precedent for what we can expect in the future—that is, Ellerbe playing through the pain.
There have been no significant updates on the recovery of defensive tackle Paul Soliai or corner Dimitri Patterson, both of whom sat out the Atlanta game with injuries.
Receiver Mike Wallace (groin), center Mike Pouncey (ankle) and safety Chris Clemons (hamstring) were able to play in the game despite being listed as "questionable" on the injury report. They didn't seem to suffer any setbacks, so their availability for Week 4 should be in considerably less doubt.
What Must Improve
The Miami Dolphins need to improve in many ways, but three areas will be of particular importance when it comes to defending their undefeated status against another undefeated team in the New Orleans Saints. The team must tighten up its run defense, protect quarterback Ryan Tannehill and keep the New Orleans tight ends out of the end zone.
With defensive tackle Paul Soliai out of the game, the Dolphins run defense took a very serious step backward against the Atlanta Falcons. The Dolphins have allowed the sixth-worst yards per attempt on run plays in the NFL, according to NFL.com's statistics.
However, the above statistic does not necessarily preclude quality defense. The Kansas City Chiefs have the worst run defense in the NFL by this measure, and the New Orleans Saints have the second-worst. But the Chiefs are allowing only 11.3 points per game on defense, and the Saints have allowed a mere 12.7 points per game.
The Saints are not known for running the football with particular conviction or effectiveness. But this is still a notable weakness for Miami's defense heading into this game, as many of the Saints' failed drives during the first two weeks of the season can be blamed on the team's first-round tailback Mark Ingram.
The Saints seemed to shoot themselves in the foot on offense in an attempt to get Ingram going in order to justify his lofty first-round status. Two of the Saints' offensive drives during the two-game span ended directly with failed fourth-down runs by Mark Ingram. He averaged only 2.0 yards per carry on his other 15 carries during the stretch.
Ingram entered Week 3 injured and unable to play, but that may not be the only reason other tailbacks like Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson received more chances during the game. Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports reports that Ingram is expected to seek a trade.
The Saints very well may have moved on, and that would bode well for their ground game. Pierre Thomas has gained 100 yards on 25 carries (a 4.0 yards per carry average) this season and has also caused four missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
An X-factor could be tailback Khiry Robinson, an undrafted free agent from West Texas A&M. The Dolphins are familiar with Robinson, and the Saints know it. When the two teams met in the preseason, Robinson sliced up Miami's defense for 116 rushing yards on 22 carries and caused six missed tackles.
The Saints are excited about Robinson's blend of feet, size and power, and they used the lopsided scoreboard to get him some snaps against the Arizona Cardinals. With 38 yards on only four carries, he was the team's leading rusher in the game.
Another weakness the Dolphins showed against the Atlanta Falcons was the inability to keep Ryan Tannehill from being sacked. Tannehill was sacked five times during the game despite the Falcons having tallied only two sacks in the previous two games.
The problem in that game was not necessarily an overabundance of pressure from the Falcons defense. The Falcons have not been an effective pass-rushing team, and that showed at many points in the game. Instead, the problem was tied to costly mistakes.
Left tackle Jonathan Martin made a costly mistake against pass-rusher Osi Umenyiora that allowed Tannehill to be sacked from his blind side in under three seconds. Rookie tight end Dion Sims did the same against the same player. Tailback Daniel Thomas barely functioned as a speed bump to linebacker Akeem Dent, who blitzed directly up the middle and straight into Ryan Tannehill for another quick sack. Mike Sherman blamed himself for two of the five sacks taken during the game.
The New Orleans Saints have arguably the most effective pass rush the Miami Dolphins will have seen thus far in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). By pass-rush efficiency measures, defensive ends Cameron Jordan and Tyrunn Walker are two of the three most efficient pass-rushing 3-4 defensive ends in football. Right outside linebacker Junior Galette has also proven an effective pass-rusher in defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's defense.
The Dolphins will need to finally get their house in order with respect to the sacks Ryan Tannehill has taken through three games; otherwise, they will not be able to keep pace with the opposing offensive attack.
The last aspect of Miami's game that must improve is the coverage of opposing tight ends.
The Dolphins took a step in the right direction by limiting future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez to only four catches and 24 yards. However, the team still allowed a touchdown to backup tight end Levine Toilolo. This would have been the fifth such score allowed to a tight end in only three games if not for the luck of having officials call two of them back due to unrelated penalties.
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham enters the game as the hottest tight end in pro football. He caught 23 passes for 358 yards and four touchdowns during the first three games.
But while the Dolphins obsess over defending against Graham, they must also watch for backup tight end Ben Watson. During the three seasons prior to joining New Orleans, the athletic Watson accumulated 1,676 receiving yards and eight touchdowns with the Cleveland Browns.
The Dolphins lost Cleveland backup tight end Gary Barnidge in the back of the end zone for what would have been a touchdown if not for an unrelated holding penalty. They also lost Atlanta backup Levine Toilolo in the back of the end zone for another touchdown. Indianapolis backup Dominique Jones looked to have caught a 20-yard pass that would have given the Colts a 1st-and-goal from the one-yard line before replays showed he slightly bobbled the football as he landed.
The Dolphins have their work cut out for them in this nationally televised game against the New Orleans Saints, who will be playing in front of their own crowd. However, if they can stop the ground game, protect Ryan Tannehill and keep opposing tight ends (not just Jimmy Graham) out of the end zone, they should have a chance.