Saints, Dolphins conquer difficulties for fast starts
Having finished last season at 7-9, they’ve overcome injuries on defense, issues with pass protection and problems running the football to start 3-0 for the first time in years.
That synopsis will sound familiar to anyone who follows the New Orleans Saints or the Miami Dolphins: It applies to both of them heading into their Monday night showdown at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
But only the Saints have won their past eight straight outings on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” (as well as 10 of the 12 they’ve played since coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived in New Orleans in 2006). And that’s just one of the advantages New Orleans will try to press as it aims to improve to 4-0 at the expense of a promising Dolphins team that, at this point, may be too flawed to pull off an upset at the Superdome.
“This is when you show up: big games like this,” Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said when asked about facing Miami. “Everybody’s going to see what you can do, what your team’s about. You want to impress.”
The Saints will impress their nationwide, primetime audience if Brees performs the way he’s accustomed to on Monday night. In his time in New Orleans, Brees has completed 69 percent of his passes for 3,541 yards, 28 touchdowns and 11 interceptions on “Monday Night Football.”
In his past eight appearances in the spotlight game, he has thrown for 2,467 yards, 24 scores and five picks.
But Brees won’t be the only Saint with phenomenal numbers operating against a Miami passing defense ranked 21st in the league after beating Cleveland, Indianapolis and Atlanta. There’s Brees’ favorite target: tight end Jimmy Graham, whose 23 catches, four touchdowns and 358 receiving yards make him the most productive player at his position in the league.
Graham is also one of the biggest reasons the Saints defeated Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Arizona despite a ground game that has gained a paltry 2.7 yards per attempt on handoffs to running backs and an offensive line that has let Brees get sacked 10 times.
Dolphins coach Joe Philbin expressed concern about containing the 6-foot-7, 265-pound Graham with a defense that has dealt with injuries to Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake (knee), linebacker Koa Misi (shoulder), defensive tackle Paul Soliai (knee) and cornerback Dimitri Patterson (groin), all starters. Patterson has been ruled out of the game; the others are questionable.
“(Graham’s) production ... has been off the charts,” said Philbin, whose team opened the season with three consecutive wins for the first time since 2002. “He can catch the ball in traffic. He can catch the ball when he gets hit. ... His size and length are an issue, and it’s a concern when you go play him.”
Miami, though, does count on veteran cornerback Brent Grimes. Grimes, who made his NFL debut in Atlanta in 2007 and remained there until last year, intercepted Brees twice and broke up a number of his passes while with the Falcons.
New Orleans’ fourth-ranked defense — which has racked up eight sacks, four interceptions and two fumble recoveries — will be assailing a Miami offensive line that has been more susceptible than the Saints’ has. The Dolphins have surrendered a league-high 14 sacks.
To his credit, second-year Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill has persevered and completed 66.4 percent of his passes for 827 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. He won over believers — not to mention the game — against Atlanta last week by going 9-of-12 for 69 yards on the final drive and tossing a touchdown pass with 38 seconds left.
“You can see on tape how much progress he’s made in the early part of this season,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “He is a very good talent, a very good athlete, and he’s locating the ball and doing all the things you want your quarterback to do, which starts with leading your team and giving them a chance to win each week.”
But aside from his poor protection, Tannehill hasn’t had much of a running game to complement him. Dolphins running backs have rushed for 211 yards on 65 carries; in their first game of the season, they ran for a meager 23 yards on 20 carries before subsequently having better efforts.
That’s good news for a Saints defense that’s not exactly been stout against the run, allowing more than 111 rushing yards per game.
Outside linebacker Junior Galette credited the turnovers the Saints have created to the relentless pressure generated on opposing quarterbacks by defensive ends Cameron Jordan, Akiem Hicks, Tyrunn Walker and Glenn Foster and nose tackle John Jenkins.
But Galette acknowledged that he and his teammates must clamp down on the run to keep sacks and turnovers coming, two things that have kept the crowd at the Superdome rocking this season.
“We know up front we have to stop the run to be able to get to rush the passer,” he said. “It gives us a little more time to get to the quarterback.”