The New Orleans Saints present the toughest challenge the undefeated Miami Dolphins have faced so far this season. The Saints boast the best offense the Dolphins have seen to date, and perhaps even the best defense as well.
Here we will focus on how the Miami Dolphins should look to attack New Orleans, on both sides of the ball, so they can come away victorious in front of a national television audience this Monday night.
*All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus, unless otherwise noted.
When New Orleans Has the Ball
Stopping the New Orleans Saints' high-powered offense will be no easy task. The Saints bring to the table the best quarterback the Dolphins defense has faced this year along with the best tight end, the best pass-catching tailback and the second-best wide receiver the team has faced thus far.
Believe it or not, stopping the Saints offense begins with stopping the run and screen games. This is because the Saints are at their most vulnerable when put behind schedule on down-and-distance:
Despite the pass-catching prowess of both Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, the Saints' tailback screen game is not as dangerous as one might think. This is because their offensive lineman do not do a great job of getting out in front of the screens. Miami should be able to stay on top of the screen game, so long as they remain conscious of the back leaking out of the backfield.
The Saints ground game could be a different story. The Saints shot themselves in the foot, for the most part, during the first two games of the season, as they attempted to give tailback Mark Ingram a workload that would justify his lofty draft status. He had not necessarily proven to be as worthy as fellow tailbacks Pierre Thomas and undrafted rookie Khiry Robinson, yet the Saints gave him the carries anyway. He repaid them by averaging a mere 1.8 yards per carry.
The bad news is that the Saints—partly due to injury and partly due to impatience—seem poised to correct that mistake. Ingram did not play against the Cardinals in Week 3 due to injury, and there are indications that the coaching staff is ready to give Pierre Thomas a bigger workload.
Interestingly, they may also be willing to give undrafted rookie Khiry Robinson a stronger workload. He was active for the first time in Week 3, and he repaid the coaching staff by running four times for 38 yards during the Saints' final drive last week. The Dolphins may remember Khiry as the player that ripped off 116 yards on 22 carries against them during the preseason, causing the defense to miss six tackles along the way.
The good news for the Dolphins defense is that Saints guard Jahri Evans broke a consecutive-starts streak that spanned eight seasons last week when he missed the Cardinals game with a hamstring injury. Even if he plays against Miami, he will not be at full strength.
The Saints ground game seems predicated on zone concepts. They consistently run zone-outside and zone-inside plays, getting all of their linemen on the move and allowing their tailbacks to pick a crease.
Though the Dolphins will likely be without defensive tackle Paul Soliai for the second consecutive game, defensive tackles Jared Odrick and Randy Starks have the ability to defend against this ground game because of their mobility. The key will be getting their hips into the play-side gaps and maintaining gap control.
From there, it is up to Miami's linebackers to pursue the ball and shut off any cutback lanes. Miami's linebackers tend to be very aggressive in filling gaps by hitting offensive linemen and ruining the integrity of run.
Yet, discipline will be key for the scraping linebacker on the back side, for a number of reasons. First, the Saints tailbacks will be actively looking for cutback lanes. Second, the Saints like to run boot action off the outside stretch plays, and the back-side linebacker will need to key on Brees and aggressively pursue him when this happens.
Defending the Saints' passing game will, of course, be a more formidable challenge.
As usual, the plan starts with a decision about when and in what situations the defense will want to blitz. The primary problem with blitzing Drew Brees is that he feasts on defenses that only drop five or six players back into coverage.
The Saints consistently use advanced two-man and three-man route concepts to attack players in zone and man coverage. They will pick off players in man to spring open receivers with rub plays, and they will create choices for individual zone defenders, throwing the ball based on the defender's leverage in zone. This all becomes easier when the defense has only five or six players in coverage.
None of this is to say the Dolphins should refrain from blitzing Drew Brees; they just have to be careful how they do it. When the Saints are behind schedule on down-and-distance on third down, the Dolphins can send overloads to one side of the offensive line and otherwise get creative with five- and six-man rushes.
However, it must be said that the Saints' most frustrating game of the season offensively thus far was their Week 2 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, when they only scored 16 points. In that game according to Pro Football Focus, the Buccaneers blitzed Drew Brees on only 10-of-50 pass plays.
Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle can easily make his mark on this game because the Saints offensive line is prone to confusion. When the Dolphins blitz, the important part is keeping enough effective cover players held back, while creating as much confusion for the Saints offensive line as possible. The Dolphins love creating this sort of confusion by having players like Olivier Vernon and Dion Jordan playing with their hands off the ground, dropping back into coverage or rushing the inside of the offensive line formation.
Since star defensive end Cameron Wake seems likely to miss this game, the Dolphins would be wise to play Olivier Vernon in his position, with his hand off the ground, as sort of a "Jack" linebacker. This not only plays into the goal of creating confusion along the Saints offensive line, but it will also give the Dolphins the benefit of an extra option to physically jam Jimmy Graham at the line when he is attached to the formation.
Speaking of which, Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is likely going to produce. There are not any wise strategies to completely shut him down. The Saints move him all over the formation, and they particularly like to get him matched up against smaller defensive backs who are generally afraid of being physical with him out of fear that he will beat their physicality and create a big play.
The key to containing Graham will be to pick your spots. When the formations and alignments allow, the Dolphins absolutely must get their linebackers or defensive ends to jam him at the line. He is not Superman, and he can be defended, as you see below:
In this clip, you have a large defensive end Adrian Clayborn successfully defending against the most productive tight end in the NFL. The key was the physicality at the line.
As mentioned before, the Saints consistently use a lot of route concepts to spring players free against zone and man coverage. That means that your underneath zone defenders will have opportunities against Drew Brees, as you can see in the play below:
Though the Saints get creative through motion and a wide receiver stack to the left side, the play above involves a fairly simple curl-flat route concept between wide receiver Lance Moore, tailback Darren Sproles and Buccaneers linebacker Dekoda Watson.
This is an example of how the Saints create decisions for defenders trying to cover them in zone. Had Dekoda Watson been too aggressive toward the player running in the flat, he would not have been able to pick off Brees' pass as he tried to hit Moore on a curl.
The key to defending against these concepts is for the underneath coverage players to be aware of what the Saints are likely trying to do to them and to stay disciplined looking for the passing lane.
In the above example, you may notice that Drew Brees attempts to open up the curl by first staring down the tailback running a route into the flat. Drew Brees will attempt to use his eyes to pressure defenders into losing discipline in this manner the entire game. He is one of the most consistent quarterbacks in the NFL at using his eyes to move defenders.
When Miami Has the Ball
The New Orleans Saints defense has improved dramatically under the direction of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
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 to be an effective pass-rusher in defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's defense.
The Dolphins will need to finally get their house in order when it comes to pass protecting for quarterback Ryan Tannehill, because despite their best efforts on defense, the Saints offense may be able to put a lot of scoreboard pressure on the Dolphins.
There are ways the Dolphins can help facilitate this process. The Dolphins can create indecision for the Saints' pass-rushers by running screen plays and quick flares out of the backfield. Despite strong improvements on defense, the Saints can still struggle at times with those kinds of fundamental plays that involve discipline.
In the same vein, the Saints defense has struggled at times when the quarterback is able to break the pocket and keep his eyes up the field looking for targets.
This season, the Saints have had the benefit of facing three relatively stationary quarterbacks in Matt Ryan, Josh Freeman and Carson Palmer. However, even Matt Ryan was able to find Tony Gonzalez for a touchdown by breaking the pocket, as the defensive backs failed to stay plastered to their coverage assignments during the scramble drill.
A Rob Ryan defense will at times tend to stack a lot of players on the line of scrimmage, especially on typical run downs. The Dolphins will need to give wide latitude to quarterback Ryan Tannehill to get out of bad plays at the line of scrimmage.
Typically, Rob Ryan is thought to be an aggressive blitzing defensive coordinator. This has not necessarily been the case with the Saints, though, as he has blitzed the quarterback on just 34-of-105 pass plays thus far in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus. In fact, Ryan's defense has generally been more effective when sitting back with seven men in coverage.
New Orleans' safeties can be exploited. One way to put pressure on them is to attack the area underneath the safety coverage over the middle of the field at intermediate depth. According to Pro Football Focus, Matt Ryan was able to pass for 162 yards, one touchdown and zero interceptions on 8-of-8 passing in this area of the field.
The Dolphins can also focus on exploiting the Saints tendency toward playing a lot of off-coverage with their corners in much the same way that they did this against the Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts. In those games, the Dolphins drove the corners nuts with consistent underneath passes to receivers Brian Hartline and Mike Wallace, until the defensive backs started to become undisciplined later in the game. Then, the Dolphins hit the corners with double-moves that produced big plays.