Dolphins vs. Saints: Takeaways from Miami's 38-17 Loss in New Orleans

Chris Kouffman@@ckparrotContributor IOctober 1, 2013

Dolphins vs. Saints: Takeaways from Miami's 38-17 Loss in New Orleans

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    Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Spor

    The New Orleans Saints thoroughly defeated the Miami Dolphins in a 38-17 rout in front of their home crowd on Monday Night Football.

    In this presentation, we will run through the main takeaways from Miami's discouraging defeat.

    The Dolphins loss comes on the heels of three consecutive victories, two of which came on the road against the Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts. The resulting 3-1 record puts the team one game behind the unbeaten New England Patriots in the race for the AFC East division title.

    The game started fast for the Saints, as they quickly drove down the field for a touchdown on the first possession of the ball game. The Dolphins were only able to answer back with a field goal.

    Miami managed to cut the deficit to 14-10, but an ill-timed interception thrown by quarterback Ryan Tannehill gave the Saints a short field. Brees connected on another TD pass, giving New Orleans a 21-10 halftime lead.

    That advantage only widened during the second half, as the Dolphins struggled to generate offense, while the Saints continued to punch the football into the end zone.

    Eventually, with the scoreboard working heavily against it, the Dolphins offense buckled under the pressure, giving up sacks and the ball to the Saints defense.

Not Ready for Prime Time

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    During the postgame broadcast televised by ESPN, analyst Steve Young noted that prior to kickoff the Miami Dolphins players had a "wide-eyed" look, indicative of a team not being ready for a prime-time showdown in a hostile environment.

    The Dolphins' play on the field certainly backed up Young's impression.

    After committing an impressively low number of penalties (two) during the previous two games against the Indianapolis Colts and Atlanta Falcons, the Dolphins were flagged five times against the Saints.

    The Dolphins entered the game having turned the football over four times total over the previous three games. They matched that total in the Saints game alone.

    From the start, certain players on the team did not seem ready to perform in such a high-profile setting. The team looked young and inexperienced under the kind of pressure and scrutiny that comes with a Monday Night Football battle of undefeated teams in a difficult dome environment.

    This is unsurprising, as the Dolphins did not play a single Monday Night Football game the entire year in 2012.

Lamar Miller Can Run the Football

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    Miami Dolphins tailback Lamar Miller quietly had a very efficient day, despite his team being thoroughly outplayed under the bright lights of Monday Night Football.

    Miller ran the football 11 times for 62 yards, including a five-yard touchdown in the second quarter. He also caught a six-yard pass on 3rd-and-7 and came inches away from reaching the first down.

    As the Dolphins got down on the scoreboard, they were forced to abandon the running game. Miller carried the ball 10 times during the first half but only once in the entire second half. That final carry came on the first play after intermission. The Dolphins were down 21-10 and were forced to punt after incomplete passes on second and third down.

    Miller's chances of reasserting himself as a ball-carrier faded when the Saints took the ensuing possession for a touchdown, making the score 28-10 less than halfway through the third quarter.

    The Dolphins felt they had to abandon the running game at that point and handed the football to a tailback only one more time the rest of the night.

    The game against the Saints only further revealed the wide disparity between Miller and his primary backup at running back, Daniel Thomas.

    Miller ran 43 times for 196 yards through the first four games of the season. Over the same period, Thomas recorded 70 yards on 25 carries.

    Both players have two touchdown runs. However, one could easily argue that Miller was forced to earn his scores—they came on runs from 10 yards and five yards out—whereas one of Daniel Thomas' touchdowns was gift wrapped to him when he subbed into a game with the Dolphins offense already at the opposition's 1-yard line.

Tight Ends Are a Deal Breaker

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    The inability of the Dolphins defense to consistently cover tight ends is no longer just a curious footnote to a string of impressive victories.

    The defense walked into the Saints game having officially allowed 20 catches for 225 yards and three touchdowns to their opponents' TEs. Those numbers could have been even worse but for a few breaks on penalties and replays.

    Before Monday night, many fans and observers believed the lack of tight coverage against tight ends to be manageable. However, the New Orleans Saints proved otherwise, as Brees completed five passes to his tight ends for 104 yards and three total touchdowns.

    The offensive explosion by the Saints casts a different light the defense's performances over the first three weeks of the season. The NFL is a copycat league. The Saints gave Miami's next opponents a blueprint on how to exploit the weaknesses of the Dolphins defense. Unlike with the Browns, Colts and Falcons, these upcoming teams will be better able to take advantage of these flaws.

    The Dolphins will need to reassess their defensive strategies with respect to defending tight ends, because they will lose more games if they continue with the same approach.

Ryan Tannehill Can Run

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    Despite their team's winning record, Dolphin fans had not been able to contain their frustration with quarterback Ryan Tannehill's inability to capitalize on his own athletic gifts.

    In other words, Miami fans wanted the second-year quarterback to run the ball more—like what they witnessed Indianapolis' Andrew Luck do during the Dolphins-Colts matchup in Week 2.

    Against the Saints, Tannehill ran the football four times for a total of 48 yards. This included an option play in the first quarter that gained 26 yards and led to a field goal.

    The results are encouraging, as Ryan Tannehill will need to make better use of his legs to keep pass-rushers from pinning back their ears.

Bad Pass Protection

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    Once the New Orleans Saints jumped out to a 28-10 lead in the third quarter, the Dolphins had very little chance of mounting a comeback.

    Miami's pass protection was not destined to hold up under the strain of pass-rushers pinning their ears back against a quarterback they knew would be forced to pass the ball.

    Ryan Tannehill was not sacked a single time during the first half of the football game.

    The Dolphins were able to stay patient even as the Saints jumped to a 14-3 lead, because there was so much time remaining in the game. The Dolphins brought the deficit to a mere 14-10 before an ill-timed interception allowed the Saints to bring the lead back to 11 points.

    After the Saints extended that lead to 18 points in the second half, Tannehill was sacked four times while trying to mount a comeback.

    The result may carry disturbing implications for the team's ability to play catch-up on occasions when the team gets behind on the scoreboard.

    The question on everyone's mind is whether Ryan Tannehill is bringing the sacks upon himself by holding onto the football too long. There is strong evidence that this was not the case during past games. Whether the theory held more or less true in the game against the Saints is subject for further review.

    However, regardless of the results of that further review, the point to be made is the simple fact that every quarterback in the NFL is afforded the ability to hold onto the football a little longer on a certain percentage of his dropbacks without fear of being sacked.

    Ryan Tannehill seems unable to do so behind his offensive line because the blockers in front of him are lucky enough if they are able to hold their blocks for a standard 2.5 seconds, even against a three- or four-man rush.

Depth Is an Issue

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    The Dolphins lack depth in many areas of the roster. This lack of depth started to become more of a problem against the New Orleans Saints.

    Drew Brees was able to exploit the coverage of backup corners Nolan Carroll and Jamar Taylor, as well as backup linebacker Jelani Jenkins. All three depth players allowed touchdowns during the game.

    Additionally, with the team's star defensive end Cameron Wake sitting out, the Dolphins defensive ends were not able to generate a consistent pass rush against Brees. The defense attempted several times to drop seven or eight players into coverage, putting pressure on their defensive line pass-rushers to provide the pressure on Brees. That pressure often did not come.

    Though tight end Charles Clay continues to impact the games positively, the tight ends behind him continue to make a marginal impact on the game. Backup tight end Michael Egnew was not thrown a single pass, and rookie backup tight end Dion Sims dropped the only pass sent his direction.

    At tailback, backup Daniel Thomas continued to disappoint with only five yards on four carries.

    The NFL season tends to be long enough for injuries to expose teams with poor depth. With injuries to players like tight end Dustin Keller, defensive end Cameron Wake, corner Dimitri Patterson and linebacker Koa Misi, we are beginning to see the Dolphins' lack of depth become more of a factor in the team's performance on game day.

Safeties Are a Problem

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    Dolphins strong safety Reshad Jones had a Pro Bowl-worthy season in 2012. The team rewarded him with a $29.3-million contract extension during the offseason.

    Jones has done little during the season to show his gratitude to the team as he continues to put together a mediocre season.

    Though his run support continues to stand out, his coverage has been highly suspect. He had a miscommunication against the Indianapolis Colts that resulted in a touchdown to tight end Coby Fleener. He lost Browns backup tight end Gary Barnidge in the end zone on a play which was called back by an unrelated penalty. He struggled in coverage against Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones.

    During the first drive of the Saints game, Jones had man coverage responsibility on tailback Darren Sproles as he ran a wheel route out of the backfield. Jones took an atrocious angle in coverage, which allowed Sproles to leave him far behind en route to a big gain.

    Yet, the problem in the Miami safeties unit is not limited to Reshad Jones. Chris Clemons has also quietly been a weakness. He showed this weakness against the Indianapolis Colts when he allowed Coby Fleener to catch a touchdown against him that was later called back on a pre-snap procedural penalty. During the same game, Clemons clearly interfered with Fleener in the end zone though the officials missed it.

    The Saints found better ways to exploit Clemons with a long touchdown to tight end Jimmy Graham on a slant-and-go route.

    The concern is that while the Dolphins' safety play had not been strong during the first three weeks of the season, opposing offenses had not found ways to consistently exploit them. The Saints did a better job of it, and one is left wondering if future opponents will target Miami's safeties.

The Dolphins Are 3-1

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    Despite everything negative that one could take away from the Dolphins' poor performance on Monday Night Football, the team is still 3-1.

    The Dolphins are now behind the 4-0 New England Patriots in the AFC East, however the team remains within striking distance. The Dolphins are tied with Tennessee Titans for a wild-card entry into the playoffs, were the season to end today.

    Miami clearly played a poor overall game on prime time television against one of the top teams in the NFC, if not the entire NFL. They succumbed to the crowd noise in a hostile environment and were beaten by one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game.

    Yet, despite all the team's weaknesses, a 3-1 record after the first four games is a stunning success for a team handicapped by Vegas odds makers prior to the start of the season for somewhere between a 7-9 and 8-8 record. That record is made all the more impressive considering the team's two victories over 2012 playoff teams.

    Miami Dolphin fans still have much to be thankful for and should remain confident as the team returns home to play the Baltimore Ravens.