NFL Week 4 Preview: Dolphins at Saints

 Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill

Sep 22, 2013; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) competes a pass in the fourth quarter in a game against the Atlanta Falcons at Sun Life Stadium. Miami won 27-23. Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since the NFL switched the Monday and Sunday night packages, the Monday night game has been a hit-or-miss proposition – sometimes you’ll get a star-studded spectacular with two great teams in hot playoff battles, and other times, you’ll get two teams just playing out their contractually obligated primetime slots. You can go through the schedule before the season starts and circle good and bad games – Chicago at Green Bay in week 9? Probably good. Oakland at Denver in week 3? Maybe not so much.

Few people would have put this week’s game into the “good” category before the season started. Two 7-9 teams aren’t exactly the worst thing to watch on a Monday night, and there was every reason to believe the Saints might bounce back with the return of head coach Sean Payton, but you could be excused for deciding to maybe check out The Voice instead. Surprisingly, however, both teams have not only improved from last year, but both are riding into Monday’s game at 3-0, the only such clash of undefeated squads this week. DVR your singing competition, we’ve got a showdown on Monday night.

Miami Dolphins (3-0) @ New Orleans Saints (3-0) – Monday, September 30th, 8:30 PM Eastern, ESPN.

Last Week: The Dolphins opened their home slate in style, with a thrilling comeback victory over one of last year’s top teams in the NFC, the Atlanta Falcons.  Trailing by three with less than five minutes left in the game, Ryan Tannehill orchestrated a thirteen play drive on which he went 9-for-12 – with two drops – to drain nearly the entire clock and score the game winning touchdown. It showed some tenacity from a team – going down by double-digits in the third quarter could have exposed the Dolphins as pretenders, but instead, they pulled out a 27-23 win for their best start in a decade.

The Saints didn’t require any last second drama to pull out a win in their game – they welcomed the Arizona Cardinals into the Superdome and beat the tar out of them. For the third straight week, the defense – which set records for futility last season – held their opponent to 17 points or less, as new coordinator Rob Ryan has done wonders. Carson Palmer was sacked four times and force to throw two interceptions, while the offense did the normal Saints thing of scoring nearly at will. Add it all up, and you have a 31-7 victory and their best start since their Super Bowl season.

Last meeting: It was an offensive explosion back in October of 2009. Drew Brees occasionally has games where he goes a bit off the rails, and this was one of those games — he did throw three interceptions and five sacks in the matchup, and was outplayed by Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne in the first half as Miami jumped out to a 24-10 halftime lead. The second half was an entirely different story. On consecutive possessions, Brees led three scoring drives of 60+ yards, and the defense forced Henne into two big interceptions, both returned for touchdowns, to win going away, 46-34. It was a 6-0 start for the Saints, who would go on to win the Super Bowl that year, while the Dolphins saw their season slipping away at 2-4.

What’s at stake: By a fluke of scheduling, the Saints are the only team in football that control their own destiny for the number one overall seed – if they win out, they’re guaranteed home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Obviously, week 4 isn’t the time to talk about such things, but it’s still impressive. They’ll be atop their division no matter what happens, but in a race for the best squad in the NFC, they need to keep ground against the Seattles and Chicagos of the world.  The two primetime games are big news for the AFC East, with the Patriots taking on the Falcons on Sunday night. If the Dolphins win, not only do the guarantee themselves to still be atop the division, but it would be their first 4-0 start since Don Shula and Dan Marino were in town, in 1995.

This time: Don’t expect the run-game to be featured in this matchup. Neither the Saints nor the Dolphins have had much success on the ground, although in the Dolphins case, ‘not much success’ means slightly below average, while in the Saints case, ‘not much success’ means it’s a wonder they ever bother to hand the ball off in the first place. The Dolphins backs, Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas, did manage 90 yards on only 15 carries last week, and the run game seems like a logical place to attack the Saints’ 3-4 defense – the way to counter a blitzing defense ready to slam down your quaterback’s throat is to puncture it with quick runs up the middle. At only 3.2 yards per carry this season though, I question whether the Dolphins will be able to take advantage in the same way that Doug Martin did two week ago, or Steven Jackson the week before that.

That leaves the passing game, and the Saints defense has made a remarkable turnabout since last year. With eight sacks and four interceptions on the year, they’ve been harrying opponents all year long. However, it’s only been three games, and two of those were against a now-benched Josh Freeman and Carson Palmer – neither on the caliber of what Ryan Tannehill has been doing in his second season. He certainly hasn’t been perfect, turning the ball over twice last week before leading his team on the game-winning drive, but he’s developing well by any reasonable standard as a second year player. The issue is not with him, nor his receivers, but his offensive line – the Dolphins have given up 14 sacks this year, tied for the NFL lead. Ryan’s going to be sending pressure all game long, and in a pumped up Monday Night atmosphere, that’s going to rattle Tannehill. How he can handle that pressure will be a key determining factor in whether or not the Dolphins can contend in this game.

The Saints haven’t exactly done great at keeping their own guys upright, either. They’ve allowed 10 sacks through three games, which is very out of character – they’ve allowed the fewest sacks of any NFL team dating back to 2006, which is even more remarkable considering how often they throw the ball. Injuries will play a factor here, though – Jahri Evans missed last week’s game with a hamstring injury, leaving undrafted free agent Tim Lelito to take his place. It is as of yet unclear as to whether or not Evans will play in Sunday’s game – but the Dolphins have an issue there, too, as Cameron Wake’s status is up in the air as well. He did participate in individual drills on Wednesday, but he’s by no means a guarantee to be in the lineup, which would put a lot of pressure on rookie Dion Jordan to supply the pressure Wake normally does. With so much uncertainty, determining whether or not Brees will remain upright is a difficult task.

Miami’s much stronger in pass defense than in rush defense, but that’s alright – the Saints are only averaging 85.7 yards on the ground a game, just slightly better than Miami’s been doing, with only 3.5 yards per carry. No, this game will be decided in the air, with Brent Grimes and Will Davis asked to try to cover the flotilla of receiving options the Saints throw out there. It’s a tough task for any team, and with Drew Brees on an eight-game 300-yard passing streak, expect the ball to be in the air early and often.

Prediction: For the second week in a row, this is the hardest challenge the Dolphins have faced yet. You have to give them full credit for the strides forward they have taken, and the future looks bright in Miami.

However, the fact remains – they’ve actually been outgained this season, despite their 3-0 record. Going into a noisy Superdome in prime time is a challenge for any quarterback, much less a second year one, and their strengths don’t align very well with the Saints’ weaknesses. I like them to test New Orleans, but for the Saints to continue their winning ways at home. Let’s call it New Orleans 27, Miami 24.

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Bryan Knowles is a writer and hopelessly devoted sports nut, with strong opinions that are subject to revision near-daily. A graduate of UC Davis and San Jose State University, Bryan spends his days teaching high school English and his nights watching far too many sporting events.