Battle of Unbeatens

After Monday night the NFL’s undefeated ranks will shrink to five teams. Will Ryan Tannehill be the one to finally solve the Saints’ new-and-improved defense? Can Drew Brees withstand the Dolphins’ relentless pressure?

By
Andy Benoit
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Ryan Tannehill (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Dolphins offense vs. Saints defense

Of the league’s 96 offensive, defensive and special teams units, the most improved this season has been Rob Ryan’s new defense in New Orleans. After giving up a record 440 yards and 28.4 points per game last season, the Saints are allowing 296 yards (fourth best in the NFL) and 12.7 points (fifth) per game.

In his recent story on surging defensive end Cameron Jordan, Peter King explained how Ryan’s dynamic 3-4 scheme has empowered the front seven defenders to play more to their strengths by giving them less to process. It’s the impeccable discipline of his secondary in matchup-zone concepts that has allowed Ryan to play this way.

The addition of safety Kenny Vaccaro has been critical. Not only is the first-round pick rangy and athletic, but the rookie also has the versatility to play man-to-man in the slot. So does former first-round cornerback Malcolm Jenkins. This has made the Saints virtually immune to matchup problems inside. Offenses can no longer use motion or flex tight ends to stress the interior of this defense. Consequently, linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne—both of whom look faster than ever before—can be help-defenders against the pass instead of being assigned frequent solo coverage responsibilities. Additionally, the Saints don’t have to play a nickel corner, so third safety Roman Harper (though out for this game with a knee injury) can stay on the field as a full-time defender in the box, where he thrives.

So how will the Dolphins attack the Saints? They’d love to stretch the field with wideout Mike Wallace, though it’s unlikely that deep shots will consistently be available for Ryan Tannehill. Jenkins often aligns 20 yards deep in centerfield, and Tannehill might be hurting for time given how offensive tackles Jonathan Martin and Tyson Clabo, as well as right guard John Jerry, struggle in protection. The Dolphins have been most effective in three-wide sets that give Tannehill clear options for getting the ball out quickly.

Rob Ryan is not quite as maniacal with his blitz packages as people think, but facing a young offense in front of a Superdome crowd that’s always raucous in prime time, it would make sense for him to turn his men loose. Especially when you consider that one of Miami coach Joe Philbin’s biggest concerns has been his running backs in pass protection. Daniel Thomas has the size to take on blitzers but isn’t as consistent as a third-year pro should be. Lamar Miller, the guy coaches would love to see emerge as the No. 1 back, has improved his blocking but still has plenty of room to grow. Of course, if Miller continues to show more decisiveness and a surprising second gear like he has the past two weeks, Fins coaches will feel better about rolling the dice with him. And they know that running the ball is a great way to keep the Saints’ powerful offense off the field.

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Drew Brees (Greg Nelson/SI)

Saints offense vs. Dolphins defense

The Saints’ passing game centers around creating mismatches inside for big receiving targets Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham. Both have been steady this season after an up-and-down 2012. Colston has caught four or five balls for roughly 65 yards each week, while Graham, who looks better than ever running routes, has 313 yards and three touchdowns over the last two weeks.

While Miami’s pass defense overachieved in its first three games, it might not have the interior resources on the back end to combat Drew Brees’ two favorite targets. Physically, Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler both move well in zone coverage. But against the seam routes of New Orleans’ 3 x 2 sets, they’ll essentially have to play man-to-man. It’s imperative that safeties Reshad Jones and Chris Clemons help over the top, which history suggests might require too much reactionary discipline for their comfort.

Miami’s pass rush can be the great neutralizer, though with Cameron Wake questionable with a sprained MCL, defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle might have to rely more on blitz packages. Maybe he would have done that anyway. Coyle is very creative with blitz exchange concepts out of hybrid fronts. He has an athletic defensive line, two movable second-level pieces in Koa Misi (also questionable) and Dion Jordan, and a pair of supremely fast gap-shooters in Ellerbe and Wheeler. Generally, a defense’s best chance against Brees is to attack. The 13th-year veteran is simply too proficient in progression reads to be allowed to sit back and dissect zones.

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