The opening game of the NFL International Series both disappointed and defied expectations. As the rhythm-less Baltimore Ravens struggled to build any momentum on offense, the much-maligned Jacksonville Jaguars put on a clinic in the capital. Crushing their opponents 44-7 on their annual visit to Wembley, the Jaguars silenced critics and induced introspection in Baltimore. While the one-sided affair was from the best advert for America’s Game, it nonetheless left us with plenty to ponder as we move on to Week Four of the 2017 NFL Calendar.
James Shaw previews New Orlean Saints vs. Miami Dolphins.
Bad Timing for the Dolphins
In the second of this year’s international match-ups, the Miami Dolphins will be hoping to pick up where their Floridian neighbours left off when they face the New Orleans Saints at Wembley Stadium. Following their humiliating Week Three loss to the New York Jets (the consensus worst team in the league), the (1-1) Dolphins find themselves in a season-defining spot against one of the most prolific offences in the league.
— NFL UK (@NFLUK) September 26, 2017
Sunday’s game will mark Miami’s fourth appearance in London, but it remains to be seen whether the team’s familiarity with Wembley’s hallowed turf will be enough to compensate for the Dolphins’ unprecedented scheduling tribulations. Having spent the last two weeks on the road (during a time when friends and family were stuck battling Hurricane Irma back home) the South Florida club would benefit from a home stint more than any other team in the league. Such, however, is the NFL’s scheduling protocol, this Sunday’s matchup with the Saints will count as a “home game” for the Dolphins — but that will come as little comfort to Miami’s exhausted roster.
A Tale of Two Offences
It isn’t, however, just scheduling concerns that will be worrying Adam Gase, the Dolphins’ rookie Head Coach, when the team arrives in London on Friday. In their loss to the Jets, Miami was exposed on both sides of the ball. Quarterback, Jay Cutler threw for a respectable 220 yards but was neutralised when it mattered. The young Jets defence managed to pressure the veteran signal-caller throughout, drawing three sacks and an interception while limiting the Dolphins to just a single touchdown. Cutler described the loss — and the offence’s struggles — as a “wake-up call”; Sunday’s game will show us whether Miami has the weapons to recover.
Last week’s anaemic display notwithstanding, the offence shouldn’t be Miami’s primary concern on Sunday. New Orleans ranks second-to-last in total defence, but sixth in total offence and fifth in yards per game. Saints quarterback, Drew Brees, has been given the keys to what looks be a juggernaut of an offence this year and has so far averaged 289 yards per game (the third highest in the league). The (1-2) Saints will be feeling particularly buoyed following their divisional win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. Finishing with a 131.4 passer-rating, Brees devastated the Panthers’ secondary, putting up three touchdowns against the no.1 defence in the league.
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) September 26, 2017
But despite New Orleans’ offensive prowess, don’t expect to see much from them on the ground. The Saints’ rushing game has been limited so far this season, and Miami is one of the most effective teams in the league when it comes to stopping the run. As has become customary for Sean Payton’s Saints, the offense will pass-heavy, reliant on Brees and a receiving core which will be boosted on Sunday with the return of Willie Snead. With defensive issues of their own, New Orleans will be prepared to out-duel the Dolphins if this one becomes a shoot-out — and with the total set at 49.5 (the highest of the weekend’s slate), it could become just that.
Contrasting Pre-game Approaches Could Make the Difference
For their first International Series fixture in 9 years, the Saints have taken the unusual step of spending the entire week in London. After taking in an Arsenal game at the Emirates on Monday, the team enjoyed a rest day before getting down to three days of practice. Jet lag will be of no concern to Payton when his team take the field at 2:30pm on Sunday.
The Dolphins, by contrast, have chosen to spend the beginning of the week in South Florida. Gase’s club will wait until Friday before flying into London, giving his players less than 48 hours to adjust to the time difference. Miami, of course, has been here before, and despite possessing a mixed record in London, the organisation has faith in its method. The upbeat Saints do, however, seem to be enjoying their time in the UK, and the extra days to adjust could well be enough to make the difference come Sunday.
Miami’s offense finds some rhythm early, but New Orleans eventually pulls away. I will be backing the Saints -2.5 in what could a high-scoring encounter at Wembley.