Date/Time/TV: Dec. 27, 2021 / 8:15 PM ET / ESPN
Location: Caesars Superdome, New Orleans, Louisiana
Under normal circumstances, tonight’s game would be an intensely tight matchup between these two middle-of-the-pack teams, both fighting for a playoff spot in their respective conferences. But, through injuries and COVID-19 related reasons, the Saints are due to miss upwards of 15 starters against the Dolphins.
However, Saints head coach Sean Payton is still one of the best coaches in the NFL, and 75,000 loud, screaming fans in New Orleans on a Monday night isn’t something to lightly brush off either. Make no mistake about it, a depleted Saints roster is still more than enough to cause problems for Miami, who have a history of playing down to their opponent. Ultimately, tonight’s game will come down to a few personnel advantages across the field, outlined below.
Who’s Got The Edge?
QB - Dolphins. Unfortunately for New Orleans, with starter Jameis Winston already out due to a torn ACL suffered in Week 8, the Saints will also be without backup QB Trevor Siemian and 3rd-string QB Taysom Hill against Miami. Both players were placed on the COVID-19 list for Week 16, and are confirmed out for Monday.
As a result, the Saints will be starting rookie QB Ian Book against Miami, who has yet to play a single snap in the NFL. Book was a 4-year starter at the University of Notre Dame, and threw for 8,948 yards, 72 TDs, and 20 INTs in his time with the Fighting Irish. However, it’s unclear how that production will translate to the NFL, and whether or not he can be a viable starter in the NFL. So, by default, Miami has the clear edge here with QB Tua Tagovailoa.
RB - Saints. Alvin Kamara is simply one of the best RBs in the NFL, end of story. Since entering the league in 2016, Kamara has yet to finish a season with fewer than 4.5 yards per carry. He also led the NFL in yards per carry in his rookie season (6.1) and has amassed 500+ receiving yards and 80+ catches in each of his 4 NFL seasons so far.
The Dolphins’ best RB at the moment is Duke Johnson, and whilst he played admirably in Miami’s Week 15 victory over the New York Jets, he’s just not in the same stratosphere as Kamara. By some distance, New Orleans takes the edge here.
WR - Dolphins. With star receiver Michael Thomas already out for the season due to an ankle injury, the Saints are pretty thin at the wideout position. While both Marquez Callaway (36 receptions, 555 yards) and Deonte Harris (31 receptions, 523 yards) have done fairly well in Thomas’ absence, neither have shown the level required to be a true #1 WR in the NFL.
However, Dolphins receiver Jaylen Waddle has shown that level of play this year, and then some. So far in 2021, Waddle has tallied 86 receptions (7th-most in the NFL) for 849 yards. Even DeVante Parker, who’s battled injuries all season, has 35 catches on the season, only 1 behind the Saints’ leading receiver. As things stand, Miami’s WRs are definitely the better unit.
TE - Dolphins. Even if the Saints weren’t missing two of their TEs in Juwan Johnson and Adam Trautman, Dolphins TE Mike Gesicki would still be the best player across both units. In 2021, Gesicki has notched 64 receptions for 685 yards so far, both of which rank Top-10 in the NFL among all tight ends.
Meanwhile, the Saints leading TE Adam Trautman (who’ll likely be missing the game anyways), only has 26 catches for 245 yards on the year. In fact, even Miami’s backup tight end Durham Smythe has the same amount of catches as Trautman this year, and more receiving yards (257). So, even ignoring any COVID-19 related issues, Miami’s TEs are clearly the better group.
OL - Dolphins. I know, call me crazy. But, barring a drastic turn of events, the Saints are set to miss FOUR of their starting 5 offensive linemen against Miami. Veteran left-tackle Terron Armstead missed the Saints’ practice on Friday with a knee injury, and 3 other starters are out due to COVID-19 related reasons.
According to Pro Football Focus, Miami’s offensive line still ranks worst in the league, even after slight improvement in recent weeks. Regardless, it’s hard to believe that an offensive line missing 4 starters would be better than Miami’s OL, who aren’t missing a single starter. I can’t believe I’m typing this, but essentially by default, Miami has the better offensive line.
DL - Saints. The Saints’ defensive line is one of the best in the league, even with a few players missing. Edge-rushers Marcus Davenport and Cameron Jordan are two of the best in their position in the NFL, and they’ll be a handful for Miami’s offensive line.
However, Miami’s defensive line aren’t exactly pushovers either. This season, rookie defensive-end Jaelen Phillips has managed an impressive 8.5 sacks, and fellow defensive -end Emmanuel Ogbah leads the NFL in passes batted (9). Also, Zach Sieler (81.3) and Christian Wilkins (83.1) are two of the top graded defensive tackles in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
Regardless, the Saints’ defensive line have proven their talent over a longer period of time, as opposed to the Dolphins who’ve just recently made improvements in the last few weeks. So, on this basis, I’ll have to give the edge to New Orleans.
LB - Saints. Even with Demario Davis (COVID-19) out for the Saints, Miami’s linebackers still fall behind the New Orleans. Dolphins’ LB Jerome Baker is a great run-stopper and excels at blitzing, but generally struggles in coverage and in the open field. Meanwhile, Kwon Alexander of the Saints has found a new home in New Orleans, and has emerged as a reliable all-round linebacker over the past few years. It’s marginal, but I’ll have to give the edge to New Orleans.
DB - Dolphins. The Saints will be missing 2 of their best safeties in Malcom Jenkins and Jeff Heath (both due to COVID-19), but 4-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marshon Lattimore will be available against the Dolphins. Lattimore is one of the league’s best shutdown corners, and leads the NFL in the most forced incompletions in man coverage (14).
But, as good as Lattimore is by himself, Miami boasts arguably the best secondary in the league, let alone the best secondary in this matchup. Xavien Howard, Byron Jones, and Jevon Holland are superstar players in their respective positions, and will be a handful for the Saints’ offense.
Special Teams - Dolphins. The Saints have had trouble in the kicking department this year, with the team cycling through 3 separate kickers so far. Meanwhile, although Dolphins’ kicker Jason Sanders is having a down year by his lofty standards, he’s still made 18/24 field goals (75%) and is still perfect from 20-29 yards (6/6).
Also, Miami punter Michael Palardy has quietly rebounded after a slow start to the season, landing 25 punts inside the opponents 20-yard-line (4th-most in the NFL). However, Saints punter Blake Gillikin isn’t far behind Palardy either, and has landed 23 punts inside the opponents 20-yard-line.
While both punters may be on equal footing, Miami’s advantage in the kicking department gives them the edge here.
Which Matchups Will Decide The Game?
1) Miami’s OL vs. the Saints’ DL
The Saints employ a 4-3 defensive scheme, which is typically stronger against the run than against the pass. Last week, Miami impressed with their ability to run the football, which helped open the playbook in terms of passing opportunities. It’s a tough ask, but without a strong running performance against a tricky Saints’ 4-3 defense, Miami will be forced to fall back to their RPO-style offense, which can be pretty repetitive and predictable. In order to achieve another great game on the ground, Miami’s offensive line must be able to open up gaps and sustain pressure against the Saints’ defensive line. If done properly, the Dolphins should be able to run the ball like they did last week, and consequently attack the Saints through the air as well.
Due to the limitations of the 4-3 defense against the pass, the Saints will almost certainly bring extra pressure against Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa when needed. So, on obvious “passing downs”, expect New Orleans to bring this extra pressure in the form of 5-0 or 6-0 defensive fronts, in order to confuse Miami’s offensive line and get to the quarterback. If Miami’s offensive linemen are able to keep track of their assignments and not get confused, the Dolphins (theoretically) shouldn’t have a problem protecting Tua, and therefore moving the ball down the field.
However, if the Saints manage to overpower Miami’s offensive line, I have a hard time seeing anything other than a Saints victory on Monday night.
2) Miami’s WRs vs the Saints’ DBs
For a moment, let’s pretend Miami’s offensive line are able to sustain pressure all game, and create plenty of time for Tua to throw the ball downfield. Even if this happens, what good will it do if Miami’s receivers can’t get open?
Last week against the Jets, the Dolphins’ receivers weren’t able to create separation in the open field, and Miami struggled to move the ball through the air. With Jaylen Waddle back this week, this is a matchup that Miami absolutely needs to win, and should win.
The Saints are missing 2 of their top safeties in Malcolm Jenkins and Jeff Heath, but they’ll have Pro Bowl cornerback Marshon Lattimore suited up and ready for Monday night. At the moment, it’s unclear whether Lattimore will lineup against Waddle or Parker, or swap between the two. Regardless, Miami’s receivers will still have the edge against a heavily depleted secondary, and can’t afford not to take advantage.
If Miami can move the ball through the air quickly, I don’t see the Saints and rookie QB Ian Book being able to keep up offensively, and Miami will likely emerge as winners.
So, what are your predictions for tonight’s game vs. the Saints? Will the Dolphins extend their winning streak to 7 games, or will the Saints pull off the upset under unfavorable conditions? Leave your predictions in the comments below!