The road for the 3-0 New Orleans Saints will get substantially tougher over the next few games. The Saints' next three opponents all present potential matchup problems—while having a combined record of 9-0 (entering this weekend). Up first is the youthful Miami Dolphins.
The Dolphins are one of the most storied franchises in all of football—in one of the best cities in the entire world. It just feels right when they are successful, which hasn't been the case for more than a decade.
Those times are over.
Head coach Joe Philbin has proven that his nine years spent with the Green Bay Packers organization weren't in vain. He has brought the same precise, steadfast and forward-thinking thought process with him to Miami.
Charged with tough decisions in his first season as coach—like jettisoning veteran receiver Chad Johnson—Philbin has reaped the benefits of ruling with an iron fist.
After a season where the Dolphins looked competitive (7-9), it's now safe to say they are competitive. They present a few challenges to the Saints on both sides of the ball, but they also have quite a few holes that the Saints will look to exploit.
Due to Miami's small sample size (under the current regime), it's hard to get a read on what type of team it really wants to be. When it is fully equipped with the type of personnel it needs, it will ultimately become a pass-first offense.
After the biggest win of Philbin's tenure—a 27-23 triumph over the Atlanta Falcons—it may be ready to fully implement its scheme.
Despite being in a close game for the duration of the contest, the Dolphins managed to only dial up 15 runs, opposed to 35 passes. Winning in this fashion has a very Green Bay feel to it. The lack of commitment to the run (Saints fans have heard that line before) was certainly not due to production.
In fact, the Dolphins managed to generate 90 yards on those 15 carries. Running backs Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas present a bit of a thunder-and-lightning scenario.
Miller, at 5'10", 216 pounds, is one of the fastest backs in the NFL. He has the size to be a three-down back and is an excellent fit in Miami's zone-blocking scheme. His one-cut-and-go style will remind Saints fans of Houston Texans back Ben Tate—who lit the Saints up in preseason.
Thomas, 6'1", 235 pounds, looks like Tarzan! But fortunately for Saints fans, he's played like Jane thus far in his career. His inability to stay healthy and have his production mirror his talent is very reminiscent of Saints back Mark Ingram.
But make no mistake about it; the combination of both of these guys could potentially give the Saints fits.
Miami runs a ton of different personnel groupings on offense. This one is my particular favorite. Here they were in "12 personnel," which gave them a ton of options. Both the Saints and the Dolphins employ a zone-blocking scheme (and a West Coast offense) that's designed to establish cutback lanes.
Backs must have great vision and practice patience to the hole (You hear that, Ingram?). Miller exemplifies those attributes to perfection.
The Dolphins linemen are much better moving forward in the run game, as opposed to retreating for the pass. Miami has three of the nastiest linemen in the league in center Mike Pouncey, guard Richie Incognito (especially him) and tackle Tyson Clabo.
All of the linemen are adept at getting to the second level for blocks if necessary. Here Incognito had to focus on the second level initially or peel back if the defender was not there.
The Dolphins sent a tight end out in a pattern, which forced the linebacker away from the box. Incognito then helped with the defensive tackle to provide the running lane. Miami also faked a ghost-reverse run that caused the defensive end to freeze.
Miller had two options as far as lanes go.
After he thawed out, the defensive end was too far away to provide help. And as you can see, the hole was developing to perfection.
Once a back is patient to the hole, he must have the burst to explode through it. Miller has that—and then some! Once through to the second level, a back must be able to defeat the initial defender he encounters. For Miller, it was Falcons safety Thomas Decoud.
Miller exploded past him like he was a statue.
The Saints can't afford improper run fits against such a talent. They must fill lanes and defeat blocks to avoid being gashed in the run game. They must stop the run—and force the Dolphins into a one-dimensional attack.
Miami's pass game is very similar to the Saints' as well. Philbin—along with offensive coordinator Mike Sherman—has installed an aggressive version of the West Coast offense. The system calls for a quarterback with the ability to be accurate in the short-to-intermediate game, as well as the athleticism to extend plays—to get out of the pocket in the bootleg and waggle game.
The Dolphins have found the perfect QB in second-year signal-caller Ryan Tannehill.
At 6'4", 222 pounds and with a 4.58 40-yard dash, per the Houston Chronicle, Tannehill is the perfect blend of size, athleticism and intelligence. Hiring Sherman—Tannehill's college coach—provided continuity that helped ease his transition to the NFL.
Receivers Brandon Gibson and Rishard Matthews are very solid players. Both are 6'0" and work very well as inside receivers. These guys are counted on to move the chains. H-back Charles Clay and tight end Dion Sims are legitimate threats as well.
Receiver Brian Hartline is one of the most underrated players in the NFL. All he does is make plays and defeat corners. His route running and hands are impeccable. He will mostly be opposite Saints corner Jabari Greer. Without a pass rush, Greer might struggle. It'll definitely be a battle worth watching.
The matchup on the other side might be even more compelling. New Orleans natives Keenan Lewis and Mike Wallace will engage in a battle of highly touted free-agent acquisitions.
Lewis was touted as the shutdown corner the Saints needed to anchor a leaky secondary. Wallace might be the best field-stretcher in the entire league. The Dolphins are counting on him to open things up for their underneath attack. So far, he's proven himself to be a well-rounded threat.
I have a hard time believing Lewis has anything to offer Wallace in downfield coverage. His best bet would be to rough him up on the line of scrimmage. But knowing Lewis, he will play seven yards off and get ran by.
Lewis had a couple of chances to defend downfield in the last game against the Cardinals. To the naked eye, it looked like he defended well. Upon further review, he was flat-out lucky. Here he was defending against Cardinals receiver Michael Floyd.
Once Floyd destroyed the cushion, Lewis was pretty much at his mercy. Lewis was not in the hip pocket of the receiver (middle frame) and turned to locate the ball extremely late. If this had been a better thrown pass, it more than likely would've been a completion.
Going against the NFL's premier deep threat will require Lewis to be steady in his technique.
What will be to Lewis' benefit is a horrible Dolphins offensive line—when it comes to pass protection. Tannehill has been sacked a league-high 14 times, and the Saints will undoubtedly add to that total.
Left tackle Jonathan Martin has bust written all over him. He struggles with both speed and power moves. The thought of going against beasts like Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette, as well as defensive end Cameron Jordan, should have Martin waking up in cold sweats.
Right tackle Tyson Clabo is equally ripe for the picking. Expect a dominant performance from the Saints' front seven.
The Dolphins don't try to overly scheme teams on defense like the Saints do. They are a 4-3-based scheme that morphs into a 3-4 in some packages.
Pound-for-pound, the Dolphins may have one of the fastest defenses in the league. But they also have one of the smallest.
Standout linebackers Dannell Ellerbe (6'1", 245 lbs) and Philip Wheeler (6'2", 240 lbs) cover an insane amount of distance. Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle likes to use his linebackers to defend tight ends.
Advantage New Orleans.
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham will have a field day against any linebacker in the NFL. As athletic as Ellerbe and Wheeler are, both pale in comparison to what Graham has to offer in that department. He's too big, too fast and too productive.
Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake is a top-five player at his position but is looking like he won't suit up for this contest. The Saints may have caught a major break as Wake would've destroyed right tackle Zach Strief.
Nose tackle Paul Soliai is one of the very best against the run. But it's also looking like he will be a scratch for this contest as well. That leaves fellow tackle Randy Starks to man the middle. Starks is a very difficult player to block and should have a large presence against the Saints.
Rookie defensive end Dion Jordan (third overall pick) is a threat in pass-rush situations but is a liability against the run. If he starts in place of Wake, the Saints need to run the ball directly at him.
Fellow end Olivier Vernon has the look of a superstar. But looks can be deceiving as Vernon hasn't quite put it together in his brief career.
The secondary has a couple of pieces that match up well with the Saints. Cornerback Brent Grimes, formerly of the Falcons, is a great player. Despite being listed at 5'10", Grimes plays football as if he's a basketball player. I honestly think he can outjump Graham!
His ability to play zone and man, equally as well, makes him a threat like none other. He has terrorized the Saints in the past. I expect nothing less from him this time around as well.
Safety Reshad Jones is a budding star. He can cover and tackle with the best of them. I expect Miami to rotate Jones on Graham, after Graham is finished torching its linebackers.
The Saints are superior to the Dolphins in most facets of the game. They are a more potent offense and have a more productive defense. But the they can't afford to take this upstart team lightly in any shape, form or fashion.
Stopping the run and limiting turnovers will be the keys to a Saints victory on Monday Night Football.
My prediction, 31-20 Saints (as heard on the FinSide podcast)!
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