One team is the biggest surprise in the NFL. The other has worked its way back to prominence after the return of its Super Bowl-winning head coach.
That leads to a monumental matchup of undefeated teams when the Miami Dolphins travel to face the New Orleans Saints on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” This is the only matchup of unbeatens in Week 4.
Is Miami ready for prime time? Can the Saints stay hot?
ESPN.com’s Dolphins reporter James Walker and Saints reporter Mike Triplett weigh in.
James Walker: Mike, I don’t know whether we can have this discussion without starting at the top with the head coaches of both teams. Joe Philbin in Miami and Sean Payton in New Orleans have done a tremendous job through three games. Dare I say we could be looking at two early coach of the year candidates if the Dolphins and Saints maintain their winning ways. For Philbin, I’ve really been impressed with his game planning and his attention to detail in his second year. Miami has committed just two penalties for 13 yards in the past two games. This is a team that doesn’t beat itself. Miami also is outscoring opponents 41-16 in the second half, a credit to the coaching staff’s ability to make halftime adjustments. Mike, you saw the impact of Payton when he was suspended in 2012. How much has Payton meant to New Orleans’ fast start?
Mike Triplett: Well, let’s start with those two traits you just mentioned: game planning and attention to detail. I think Payton has been the best game planner and offensive schemer in the league during his tenure in New Orleans, especially exploiting mismatches in the passing game. Also, when asked that same question you just posed, players such as quarterback Drew Brees have said Payton’s attention to detail and ability to focus on what’s most important are what make him stand out. But I think, more than anything, there is just a confidence and comfort level that has returned along with Payton. The Saints believe that Payton is going to put them in the right situations to win -- and have an answer when things aren’t working. I think that played a big part in their down-to-the-wire victories over the Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1 and Week 2.
I have to imagine that “trust” and “confidence” are some words that are starting to be used to describe Philbin and quarterback Ryan Tannehill around Miami. I’ll admit that from afar I didn’t expect this much out of Tannehill in his second season. What’s working so well?
Walker: I’ve seen Tannehill up close and personal from his first minicamp in 2012 after he was drafted, and even I’m surprised with how well he is playing in Year 2. If you told me before the season that Tannehill would have a better passer rating (94.3) than Brees (91.4) after three games, I would have thought you were crazy. But there really are not a lot of quarterbacks playing better football right now than Tannehill. He has outdueled Andrew Luck and Matt Ryan in back-to-back weeks. On top of that, he has made key drives in the fourth quarter in both games, something I did not see from Tannehill in his rookie year. His growth involves more than statistics. Tannehill’s confidence has skyrocketed, and the game appears easier and is slowing down for him. But a big concern has been pass protection. Miami has allowed 14 sacks and faces an aggressive Saints defense. How do you view that matchup, Mike?
Triplett: The Saints’ young defense has been just as surprising -- especially the way it has been able to generate consistent pressure with its four-man front. The Saints have eight sacks (four of them last week). End Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette have been particularly disruptive. And players are clearly responding to new coordinator Rob Ryan’s versatile schemes (a mix of 3-4 and 4-3). They’re still a work in progress, but, if Miami’s pass protection is suspect, the Saints sure look prepared to exploit it.
Tell me about the Dolphins’ defense. I know it's been solid, but will it have answers for matchup problems such as Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles and Marques Colston?
Walker: I’m not sure Miami has a lot of answers for New Orleans defensively. That’s why I think the Saints are a tough matchup for the Dolphins. Miami has had trouble for years defending tight ends. It was one of the reasons the Dolphins upgraded at linebacker in free agency, signing Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. But Miami still struggled until the second half last week against Tony Gonzalez of Atlanta. Graham’s athleticism over the middle could be a nightmare for the Dolphins. Brent Grimes has been terrific for Miami and has a good track record against the Saints. But New Orleans could have a lot of success attacking the Dolphins’ second and third corners. I think Miami’s best chance to disrupt the Saints is with its pass rush. Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake’s (knee) status is up in the air, but the Dolphins’ blitz packages have been a strength. How would you assess New Orleans’ offensive line, and can it improve?
Triplett: The Saints’ pass protection has been surprisingly porous. Brees has been sacked 10 times, the most in any three-game stretch since he arrived in 2006. The Saints have actually allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL over that stretch -- so it’s a problem I think they’ll correct. It will be huge for them if they can get All-Pro right guard Jahri Evans back healthy. While he was out last week with a hamstring injury, his rookie backup Tim Lelito allowed three sacks. But the rest of the line is still solid, including new left tackle Charles Brown. And Brees and Payton are savvy enough to keep him clean. The bigger issue for the Saints’ offense has been its lack of a consistent run game. I think it’ll still be pretty pass-heavy this week against Miami. Sounds like the run game has been an issue for the Dolphins, too?
Walker: The only way I can describe Miami’s running game, Mike, is sluggish. It just hasn’t looked good, and various parts aren’t on the same page. Sometimes, it’s the offensive line missing blocks. Other times, it’s the running backs not eluding tacklers. The play calling on runs, too, has been predictable. Add this up and you have a Dolphins team averaging 3.2 yards per carry. Miami running backs Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas still have a lot to prove. They haven’t showed much in three weeks, but Monday’s game is a good opportunity. The Saints’ defense has allowed 5.3 yards per carry. It’s the one hole I’ve seen so far in the New Orleans defense. Look for Miami’s offense to try to grind out yards on the ground and control the clock to some degree. That will be big playing on the road. Speaking of which, a big topic in Miami this week is playing in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Dolphins are 2-0 on the road, but this could be their biggest challenge to date. How much will home-field advantage affect this game, especially in front of a rowdy Monday night crowd?
Triplett: The Saints’ home-field advantage is no joke, especially for these prime-time night games. The Saints have won 10 straight night games at home, including the playoffs, and 13 of their past 14. Whatever advantage you can get from a loud dome and a frenzied crowd, the Saints obviously seem to feed off it. I asked new Saints tight end Benjamin Watson about it earlier this year, and he said the loudest game he ever played in was a regular-season Monday night game in the Dome when he was with the New England Patriots in 2009. And you hear that kind of stuff quite a bit from visiting players. At least some folks in the crowd will be cheering for NOLA native Mike Wallace, though.
All right, speed round. If the Dolphins win Monday night, who will get the game ball?
Walker: It would have to come down to Miami’s defense. I don’t see the Dolphins beating the Saints on the road in an offensive shootout. Someone in the secondary must have a big game for Miami to pull this out. The top two candidates are probably Grimes and safety Reshad Jones. Brees is going to throw the ball in the Superdome -- a lot. Someone such as Grimes or Jones probably has to get a big turnover or two to give the Dolphins momentum. Jones believes he’s one of the NFL’s top young safeties, and he’s being paid like one after his summer contract extension. This is the type of national game to prove it, especially when matched up against Graham. Which key player could thrive for New Orleans?
Triplett: I’m cheating if I say Brees or Graham, right? I’ll give you two other names, as well -- Sproles on offense and Galette on defense. I think Sproles looks as dynamic as ever as a runner/receiver, so it might be his turn to bust out if the Dolphins concentrate too much on stopping Graham. And Galette is the Saints’ speed-rusher who could best exploit the Dolphins’ pass-protection issues.