The New Orleans Saints traveled to London, England on Monday after their Week 3 victory, and are set to take on the Miami Dolphins, trying to even their record at 2-2 as they head into their bye week. The Dolphins come into this game with a record of 1-1, with their Week 1 game having been postponed due to Hurricane Irma. Miami will be designated as the "home" team for this game, but they have yet to play a game in Miami itself, having played week two in Los Angeles against the Chargers before traveling to New York in a loss to the Jets last week.
Today, we will look at how the New Orleans defense matches up against the Miami offensive unit for Sunday's game "across the pond".
Saints run defense vs. Dolphins run offense
The Saints run defense has given up 4.6 yards per carry and surrendered nearly 127 yards per game on the ground, currently ranking 24th in the NFL. Aside from a 31-yard run from wideout Curtis Samuel, they did fare slightly better against a run-oriented Carolina Panthers team a week ago, allowing just 101 yards rushing. Part of the reason for that, however, was that the Saints had built a sizable lead, forcing the Panthers to throw the ball with more frequency in the second half.
Defensive end Cam Jordan continues to be the best player on this Saints defense, and is just as good against the run as he is as a pass rusher. Defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins, David Onyemata and Tyeler Davison have struggled rushing the passer, more on that in a moment, but have stacked up inside runs somewhat well. Linebacker A.J. Klein has been extremely active against the run, and the team as a whole is faster and better in pursuit than in recent seasons. Eight Saints defenders have at least 14 tackles after 3 games. Safety Kenny Vaccaro, has been a liability in pass coverage at times during his career, is a strong run defender and plays his best near the line of scrimmage.
The Dolphins have averaged only around 3 yards per carry so far this season, have not yet rushed for a touchdown, and have averaged just 70 yards per game on the ground. Jay Ajayi is their workhorse, with 39 carries for 138 yards, while quarterback Jay Cutler has the second most rush attempts on the team, with just three. Ajayi burst into relevance last year, his 2nd season, with 1,272 yards rushing, 3 games of over 200 yards, 8 touchdowns and a Pro Bowl berth. His production is a bit inconsistent; Ajayi had nine games of less than 60 yards rushing last season, and is only averaging 3.5 yards per carry so far this year.
Ajayi has also been limited in practice by a knee injury, and earlier in the week there was some question whether Ajayi would even be able to play, although he has been cleared to go. Should Ajayi be limited or suffer a setback, the Dolphins would turn to Kenyan Drake and third down back Damien Williams, who have combined for just 6 touches from scrimmage so far.
Miami's offensive line is led by a pair of talented former No. 1 draft picks, Mike Pouncey and Laremy Tunsil. Pouncey has struggled with a series of injuries over the years, but is still one of the better centers in the league, while Tunsil has the early look of a consistent pro bowl player at left tackle. Former New Orleans pro bowl tackle Jermon Bushrod starts at right guard for Miami, rounding out a solid run blocking line that includes Ja'Waun James and Anthony Steen.
Saints pass defense vs. Dolphins pass offense
New Orleans expected much-improved play from their pass defense this season, after adding high draft choices Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams in the secondary, Alex Anzalone at linebacker, and free agent acquisitions A.J. Klein and Alex Okafor in the front seven. So far, it has not happened. The Saints have given up an average of 311 yards passing, 30th in the NFL, and opposing quarterbacks have completed 73% of their pass attempts against them.
New Orleans showed significant improvement last week against a limited Carolina passing attack, holding them to 184 yards passing and intercepting Cam Newton 3 times. Cornerback P.J. Williams and rookie safety Williams are improving every week, and the Saints got solid play from corner Ken Crawley last week. First round draft pick Lattimore, the Saints top cover man, should return to the lineup this week, after missing the Panthers game due to concussion.
The Saints do have 7 quarterback sacks on the young season, led by Cameron Jordan and Hau'oli Kikaha with two apiece. Their ability to bring pressure from their outside rushers is improving, but lack of interior pressure from defensive tackles Rankins, Onyemata and Davison continues to be a concern. Linebackers Klein, Anzalone, and Craig Robertson have shown much better athleticism and more aggressive play than we've seen from this unit in the last couple of seasons, but they have been responsible for some coverage lapses that need shored up.
Miami has one of the more talented receiving units in the league. Wideouts Jarvis Landry, Devante Parker, and Kenny Stills all had over 700 yards receiving a year ago, led by the Pro Bowler Landry, with 94 catches and 1,136 yards. Stills, another very familiar face to Saints fans, is a threat to score from anywhere on the field, and in 2016 had a career best 9 touchdowns. Joining them at tight end are Julius Thomas, a former Pro Bowler with the Denver Broncos, and veteran red zone threat Anthony Fasano.
Dolphins quarterback Jay Cutler was signed out of retirement after the team lost starter Ryan Tannehill for the season with a knee injury. Cutler, who played for Dolphins coach Adam Gase both in Denver and Chicago, has 450 yards passing with 2 touchdowns and an interception thus far this season. The Saints have had success against Cutler throughout his career, holding a 3-1 record against him while with the Denver Broncos (0-1) and Chicago Bears (3-0). He has been prone to interceptions and inaccuracy during his 11 years in the NFL, throwing 147 interceptions, with a career completion percentage of 62%. Cutler has already been sacked five times on the season, and has a reputation for holding onto the ball in an effort to make a big play down the field.
What to Look for
The Saints’ ability to contain Ajayi is one of the major keys to the game. He is an explosive runner, capable of taking over a contest. If he is limited due to injury, or controlled by the New Orleans defense, then the Miami attack becomes one dimensional, which has spelled disaster for Jay Cutler in the past. The Dolphins receivers are a difficult match up for the young Saints secondary, but the one-on-one showdowns between Lattimore, Williams, and Crawley against Landry, Stills, and Parker may be the most entertaining of the day.
New Orleans must be able to pressure Cutler constantly. Expect Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen to blitz heavily throughout the game, rushing him to force throws into coverage. New Orleans safeties Williams, Vonn Bell, and Vaccaro should be in position to make plays, as the Saints look to continue their defensive improvement heading into their bye week.
Which Saints position group will be most important for a victory over the Dolphins?
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