NFL Preview - New Orleans (5-0) at Miami (2-3)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Call it a clash of styles.
The Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints, who will meet on Sunday afternoon at Land Shark Stadium, prefer decidedly different modes of offensive travel.
The Dolphins, who lead the NFL in rushing offense as Week 8 begins, like to keep things on the ground.
Miami is averaging a league-best 177 yards per game on the year, with Ronnie Brown (443 rushing yards, 6 TD), Ricky Williams (316 rushing yards, 2 TD), and the vaunted "Wildcat" offense held primarily responsible for that total.
The Dolphins' last two wins - season-fixing triumphs over the Bills (38-10) and Jets (31-27) prior to a Week 7 bye - have come in large part because of the team's ability to run the football in slow, deliberate chunks.
Miami held the football for more than 14 minutes longer than did Buffalo in Week 4, then turned around and surpassed the Jets in time of possession by more than seven minutes in Week 5. The Dolphins lead the league in third-down percentage (56.0) and fourth-down conversions (5-of-5).
The approach has helped keep the pressure off of young quarterback Chad Henne, who has posted a strong passer rating (93.4) and completion percentage (65.7) in his role as a game manager. Henne will look to move to 3-0 as an NFL starter against the Saints.
New Orleans, meanwhile, will be trying to throw the football all over south Florida on Sunday.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees has already thrown for 1,400 yards with 13 touchdowns against just two interceptions during the team's 5-0 start, and leads the NFL in passer rating (118.4). Brees, who led New Orleans to a decisive 48-27 win over the previously unbeaten Giants last week, guides an attack that ranks No. 1 in the league in total offense (430 yards per game), scoring offense (38.4 points per game), and touchdowns scored (25).
But the Saints' hot start hasn't been all about the aerial attack, not by a long shot.
New Orleans is also tied for the league lead in rushing touchdowns (9), with five different running backs combining on that total, and has also shown a renewed spark defensively.
As Week 8 begins, the Saints are No. 1 in the NFL in turnover margin (+9), takeaways (15), are allowing opponents to complete a league-low 53.19 percent of their passes, and are the only team in the league that has yet to allow a rush of 20 yards or longer. Veteran safety Darren Sharper has been a large part of that dynamic, as he leads the league in interceptions (5), interception return yards (275), and touchdowns off of interceptions (2) for a unit that is tied for the league lead in picks (11).
On Sunday, the Saints will be seeking their first 6-0 start since winning their first seven in 1991, and are one of four remaining unbeaten teams in the league along with the Vikings, Broncos, and Colts.
Miami has a 6-3 edge in its all-time series with New Orleans, and has won the last two in the head-to-head series. The Dolphins were 21-6 winners when the clubs faced off in Baton Rouge in 2005, and were 30-10 victors in the prior matchup, in Miami in 1998. The Saints' most recent win in the series came in 1995, a 33-30 triumph at the Louisiana Superdome, and they are 0-3 all-time in regular season games played in Miami.
The teams also met in the 2009 preseason, with Miami taking a 10-7 decision at the Superdome on Sept. 3rd.
The Saints' Sean Payton and Dolphins' Tony Sparano, who previously served together on Bill Parcells' staff in Dallas (2003-05), have never met in meaningful play as head coaches, nor have they met one another's respective teams.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
The Brees-led Saints passing attack is so difficult to defend because of the sheer volume of players capable of beating you. In last week's 21-point win against the Giants, it was Marques Colston (25 receptions, 4 TD) and Lance Moore (9 receptions, 1 TD) who stepped up most prominently, with Colston catching eight balls for 166 yards and a touchdown and Moore shaking off an injury-plagued 2009 to that point by logging six grabs for 78 yards and a score. Wideout Robert Meachem (6 receptions, 2 TD) and tight end Jeremy Shockey (22 receptions, 3 TD) also had touchdown catches in the triumph. The running game also did its part, with four backs combining for 125 yards on 37 combined carries, and Mike Bell (263 rushing yards, 2 TD), Reggie Bush (165 rushing yards, 2 TD, 15 receptions), and fullback Heath Evans (14 rushing yards, 8 receptions, 3 TD) all scoring touchdowns on the ground. Starter Pierre Thomas (284 rushing yards, 3 TD), who is averaging a healthy 5.9 yards per rush, was high-man with 15 carries and 72 yards in the victory. The New Orleans o-line has allowed just four sacks all year, none coming from the vaunted Giants pass rush last week.
The Dolphins would not seem to be a candidate to force Brees and company into a bunch of major mistakes on Sunday, since Miami enters Week 7 tied for last in the league in takeaways. And, with a pass rush led by Joey Porter (6 tackles, 2 sacks) and Jason Taylor (11 tackles, 3.5 sacks) unlikely to be very effective against the quick-firing Brees, that means the coverage abilities of the Miami secondary will be tested from start to finish. Rookie cornerbacks Vontae Davis (6 tackles, 1 INT) and Sean Smith (9 tackles) will be among those getting a trial by fire, and safeties Yeremiah Bell (34 tackles) and Gibril Wilson (30 tackles) will have to be excellent in support. Run-stopping should be less of an issue for the Fins, who are third in NFL rushing defense (76.4 yards per game) and held Thomas Jones and Leon Washington to a combined 87 yards on 24 carries last time out. Nose tackle Jason Ferguson (8 tackles) sets the tone at the point of attack, with inside linebackers Channing Crowder (18 tackles) and Akin Ayodele (20 tackles) doing much of the cleanup behind them.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
There should be little secret about what Miami will try to do offensively on Sunday, as the Dolphins lead the league in rush attempts per game (36.6 per game) and have the fewest pass attempts in the league (144) entering Week 7. Inasmuch, Brown and Williams will see the football early and often. But Miami isn't likely to record a win without something of a contribution from Henne and the passing attack, which seems to be improving with each week. Henne (448 passing yards, 3 TD, 1 INT) was an impressive 20-of-26 for 241 yards and two touchdowns without a sack or turnover against the Jets last time out, and nine different Dolphins caught passes in the game. Wideout Ted Ginn, Jr. (16 receptions, 1 TD) and tight end Anthony Fasano (8 receptions, 1 TD) were the recipients of the Henne touchdown passes, and receivers Greg Camarillo (14 receptions) and Devone Bess (23 receptions) added value by catching three balls each in the game. The Dolphins o-line has had protection problems at times in 2009, allowing 13 sacks through the first four games before shutting out the Jets in Week 5.
The Miami running game won't have things especially easy against a Saints defense that ranks fifth in the NFL against the run (83.4 yards per game), and as mentioned, has yet to give up a long rush. An unheralded run-stopping effort is fueled in part by the efforts of former first-round defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis (12 tackles, 1 sack) up front, and linebackers Jonathan Vilma (26 tackles, 1 sack) and Scott Shanle (32 tackles, 2 INT) working behind him. As a group, the Saints held the Giants to a sub-standard 84 ground yards on just 19 carries last week. The pass defense, which has faced a great deal more action due to the deficits that New Orleans' opponents have encountered, has made big plays something of a habit. In addition to Sharper's performance at safety, cornerbacks Jabari Greer (26 tackles, 1 INT) and Tracy Porter (19 tackles, 1 INT), along with safety Roman Harper (34 tackles, 1 sack), have also been in on the playmaking. Greer had the Saints' lone interception of Eli Manning last Sunday, and Harper forced a Manning fumble that was recovered by Shanle. Ends Charles Grant (14 tackles, 4 sacks) and Will Smith (14 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT) have combined for more than half of New Orleans' 12 sacks on the season.
Brees and the main principles of the New Orleans offense are always worth starting, though this matchup might not be one where you see the Saints display their usual offensive production. The Dolphins will do their best to keep it out of Brees' hands, but won't be able to keep Colston, Shockey, or running back Pierre Thomas in check for 60 minutes. Even the playmaking New Orleans defense, which has become a worthy start, probably won't force a ton of turnovers off the ball-control Miami offense.
For the Dolphins, Brown is an every-week start and Williams a possible flex play, but otherwise, there is no one here that screams out in the reliability department.
The Dolphins are the closest thing the NFL has to a three-yards-and-a-cloud- of-dust offense, even though the modern nuances of the Wildcat confuse the team's power-running aspirations just a bit. Though Miami is going to have weeks when it craves more explosive plays, the team's current offensive formula has paid some dividends, and there's no reason to expect it won't keep them in the game against the Saints. Unfortunately for the Dolphins, the team could have the very same problem against Brees that they had against Peyton Manning a few weeks back. Brees is too efficient to keep down for four quarters, and chances are the league's reigning Offensive Player of the Year will make a big play of two when it matters.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 21, Dolphins 17
10/22 15:31:13 ET