The Miami Dolphins beat a Super Bowl contending team on Sunday when they topped the Atlanta Falcons with a late fourth-quarter touchdown drive.
But not everyone has completely bought into the Dolphins following their 3-0 start, as the Falcons were a hobbled team that arguably outperformed Miami throughout the game. Good teams, which the Dolphins are quickly validating themselves to be, find a way to win, however.
And if Miami can beat the New Orleans Saints on Monday night, in front of the entire nation, it will be undeniable. The Dolphins will have emerged as a true contender.
Let’s see which team has the edge:
Dolphins pass defense vs. Saints passing attack
Monday night has the potential to be the game where the Dolphins’ pass defense unravels some. Miami’s secondary has been a much improved unit through three games, but they haven’t faced a quarterback like Drew Brees, who has the ability to expose two unproven cornerbacks.
Nolan Carroll and Jimmy Wilson have both been much better than they were a year ago, but Brees will make sure to test them throughout. The Saints love to move their receivers all over the field, meaning we’ll see plenty of Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham in the slot.
Colston will be a tough cover for Wilson, who is projected to continue manning the nickel corner role with Dimitri Patterson sidelined. And Graham, who is on pace for a 1,900-yard, 21-touchdown season, is the best tight end in the league at the moment.
The Dolphins have had difficulty containing opposing tight ends this season, even after limiting Tony Gonzalez to 24 yards receiving this past Sunday. Gonzalez is a shell of his former self. Graham is one of most potent young pass catchers in football.
Philip Wheeler, in particular, will have to be more reliable in coverage on Monday night after giving up six catches for 68 yards and a touchdown versus Atlanta.
Not working in the Dolphins’ favor, is the possibility Cameron Wake will be held out with an MCL sprain. Hoping to contain New Orleans’ passing attack with great coverage just isn’t realistic, as Drew Brees has the accuracy to dissect any defense if he has time in the pocket.
The Saints’ pass protection hasn’t exactly been stellar in the first three games, conceding 10 sacks, which is tied for the sixth worst total in the NFL. There will be an opportunity to pressure Brees on Monday night for the Dolphins’ pass rush.
If Wake doesn’t play, the onus will fall on Olivier Vernon, Derrick Shelby and Dion Jordan from an individual standpoint and defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle as far as strategy goes, to make life difficult for Brees.
Dolphins rushing attack vs. Saints run defense
Take away Lamar Miller’s 49-yard scamper in the second quarter on Sunday, and the Dolphins’ running game only yielded 34 yards between Miller and Daniel Thomas. Overall, Miami’s 3.2 yards-per-carry average ranks 26th in the league.
Even with those struggles, Monday night will serve as an opportunity for the Dolphins to get their ground game going. The Saints currently rank 20th against the run, but the 5.3 yards per attempt they’ve given up is the second highest figure in the entire league.
The Dolphins must make running the ball a priority on Monday night against this New Orleans front seven. Doing so would take some pressure off the offensive line in pass protection and off quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who might be forced to outduel Drew Brees otherwise.
Keeping this game close will be crucial if the Dolphins hope to make running the ball a key aspect of their game plan. Fall behind early, and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman will undoubtedly abandon the run.
Dolphins run defense vs. Saints rushing attack
It was quite shocking how successful the Falcons were at running the football on the Dolphins in the first half of this past Sunday’s game. With starting running back Steven Jackson out of the lineup, Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling torched Miami for a combined 139 yards on the ground.
The Falcons were able to attack gaps the Dolphins’ defensive line left open after stunts and Kevin Coyle didn’t employ many run blitzes with his linebackers. On top of that, Miami missed multiple tackles. Philip Wheeler had his worst game by far of the young season, missing six tackles alone.
The Dolphins must be more disciplined on Monday night. Fortunately, with run-stuffing defensive tackle Paul Soliai likely out again, the Dolphins will face an offense in New Orleans that hasn’t ran the ball effectively through three games.
The Saints rank 24th in the NFL with 257 yards on the ground and have only averaged 3.5 yards per carry. Pierre Thomas has been their most effective runner, but Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram, if he plays, will also be given carries.
Dolphins passing attack vs. Saints pass defense
After ranking near the bottom of the league in 2012, the Saints’ pass defense has shot up to fourth and has held opposing quarterbacks to a 67.7 quarterback rating after three weeks.
Their ability to stop the pass has obviously been propelled by matchups versus Josh Freeman and Carson Palmer. But the New Orleans pass rush has also been formidable, producing eight sacks thus far. That poses a problem for a Miami offensive line that has given up 14 sacks in three games, which is second only to the lowly Jaguars.
Still, though, I love the way Ryan Tannehill has been playing, unfazed by poor protection and a lousy running game. He currently ranks fourth in the entire league in passing efficiency, according to Pro Football Focus, and is boasting a 94.3 quarterback rating.
Monday Night Football is the grandest of stages as far as regular-season football goes. If Tannehill is the franchise quarterback he appears to be, he’ll show up in a big way against the Saints.
He certainly still has some things to work on. He’s held the football too long at times and has done a poor job of continuing to do so when he’s been hit.
But the game is clearly beginning to slow down for Tannehill, who will have the opportunity to cement himself as one of the game’s most promising young quarterbacks on national television in New Orleans.
For the Saints, Thomas Morstead is one of the league’s top punters, combining power with accuracy, and Darren Sproles is one of the game’s most dangerous return men, as he’s produced five kick/punt return touchdowns in his career.
But the Dolphins have solid special teams as well, led by rookie kicker Caleb Sturgis, who is a perfect 6-for-6 on field goals thus far, and the big boot of punter Brandon Fields.
Marcus Thigpen is also a capable return man who is averaging nearly 30 yards per kick return in three games this season. Both the Saints and Dolphins’ coverage units have been sound, however, ranking near the middle of the pack.
I’ll give the Dolphins a slight edge simply because I like Sturgis over Garrett Hartley in the kicking battle.