With a great challenge, which traveling to New Orleans and beating the Saints in prime time certainly is, comes a great opportunity. An opportunity to prove to the entire nation that the Miami Dolphins are a legitimate contender and not just the flavor of the month.
Of course, if national perception is meaningless to you, you might not see the significance in that aim. The Dolphins technically play a more important game in Week 5 — versus the Ravens, who are prime playoff competition in the AFC.
But rest assured, national recognition matters to the players. And beating the Saints on Monday Night Football would be as sweet of a regular-season victory as they come outside of a division win for the Dolphins.
Here are the team’s five keys to pulling off the upset:
1. Start fast
There’s a reason beating the Saints on the road is so difficult. The Superdome crowd is as raucous as it gets outside of Seattle, and it will be amped up for prime time.
The Dolphins must start fast on Monday night to avoid getting buried by an explosive Saints team and the amplified momentum it will certainly garner from the mardi gras-esque atmosphere inside the dome. Following the formula Miami employed in Week 2, when it jumped out to a 14-3 lead over the Colts in the first quarter, would be beneficial.
While owning a double-digit lead over the Super-Bowl caliber Saints might not be realistic, simply preventing them from generating any huge, momentum-swinging plays, especially early, should be the goal. Quiet the crowd, and level the playing field.
2. Contain Jimmy Graham
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham currently ranks fourth in the entire NFL in receiving yards and is nearly 100 yards ahead of the next tight end on the list. At 6-foot-7, Graham is a matchup nightmare for any team, and New Orleans moves him all over the field to exploit weaknesses in opposing pass defenses.
When he lines up with his hand in the dirt as a tight end or even when he’s in the slot, the Dolphins would be wise to cover Graham with a linebacker underneath and a safety over the top. That might leave them vulnerable elsewhere, but Graham is the Saints’ most lethal weapon at the moment and must be accounted for on every play.
He will also split out wide as a receiver, typically to the left of the formation. Brees loves to feed Graham downfield or target him in the red zone in said situations, which means cornerback Nolan Carroll will likely be tested by the two on Monday night.
It doesn’t really matter how they do it, but the Dolphins’ defense must limit Graham’s impact on this game. He will almost assuredly get his, but Miami can’t allow him to dominate like Tampa Bay and Arizona’s defenses did. Graham torched both teams for a combined 19 catches for 313 yards and three touchdowns in Weeks 2 and 3.
3. Establish productive running game
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has been very impressive through three weeks when you look at the numbers. He’s currently positioned in the top 10 in completion percentage, yards per attempt and quarterback rating. But what’s been even more impressive is he’s essentially done it by himself, with minimal assistance from his running game and pass protection.
Tannehill has been sacked more times than any quarterback in the NFL and running backs Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas have only produced the league’s 28th ranked ground game. Outdueling Drew Brees by himself will be borderline impossible, so the Dolphins must help Tannehill by protecting him and running the football better. It’s the latter of said equation that is the most realistic and key to it all, in my opinion.
The Saints have given up more yards per carry than any team in football save the Kansas City Chiefs, so there is no excuse why Miami can’t make running the ball a priority on Monday night. Successfully doing so would help negate New Orleans’ ability to rush the passer without hesitation, essentially killing two birds with one stone or, at least, killing one and injuring the other.
It could also potentially help set up Tannehill for a deep shot off of play action. Tannehill simply hasn’t had the time in the pocket to take many deep shots to speedster receiver Mike Wallace yet, so running the ball more effectively and slowing down what has been an uninhibited pass rush could be key to getting the $60 million man more involved in the offense.
4. Continue superb red-zone efficiency
Want to know the secret to the Dolphins’ 3-0 start? Red-zone efficiency.
Offensively, Miami ranks first in the NFL in the category, scoring on 87.5 percent of their red-zone trips thus far. To keep up with a high-scoring juggernaut like New Orleans, putting six on the board rather than three when the Dolphins are in scoring territory will be crucial.
You can criticize Mike Sherman’s play-calling all you want, but it’s been pretty stellar deep in opponent’s territory this season. Also, running back Daniel Thomas, who I have been critical of, has been a hard runner in short-yardage situations despite averaging only 3.1 yards per carry through three weeks.
On the other side of the ball, holding Drew Brees and the Saints’ offense to field-goal tries whenever possible would be a huge win for Kevin Coyle’s defense. The Saints are going to move the ball. Brees is too dominant of a passer and his playmakers are just too difficult to stop.
The Dolphins’ defense will undoubtedly bend on Monday night. But it must continue to show resilience and refuse to break. Miami’s defense currently ranks 11th in the NFL after giving up a touchdown on 45.45 percent of opponent’s red-zone trips in the first three games of the season. That stinginess must continue in New Orleans.
5. Rattle Brees with pressure
If the Dolphins give Drew Brees time in the pocket, he’s going to dissect them like a surgeon. He’s just too good, especially at home and especially on Monday Night Football, where he’s won eight consecutive starts. Miami’s only hope will be to pressure Brees early and often.
After sacking Brandon Weeden six times and pressuring him on over 50 percent of his dropbacks in Week 1, the Dolphins have only managed three sacks in the two games since. It doesn’t help that All-Pro defensive end Cameron Wake could miss Monday night’s game with a knee injury. Even if Wake plays, he likely won’t be 100 percent, meaning Miami will be in need of rushers like Olivier Vernon, Dion Jordan and Derrick Shelby to elevate their games.
Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle loves to bring extra defenders, but for the third consecutive week, he might want to scale back his blitz packages to a degree. Brees currently owns a 118.8 quarterback rating against the blitz this season compared to 78.3 when defenses drop seven or more into coverage, according to Pro Football Focus.
I still expect Coyle to try to blitz, but when he does, it better get to Brees quickly or else he’ll find receivers open deep downfield. When Miami doesn’t bring heat, the onus will be on the aforementioned defensive ends and Randy Starks and Jared Odrick on the interior to get to Brees or rush his decisions.