While tonight's matchup serves as a litmus test for the Miami Dolphins, the New Orleans Saints have the division secure by two games over their rival the Atlanta Falcons.
The Dolphins absolutely need to play more than well in order to win the game.
Here are three keys collectively for the offense and defense:
1. Quarterback play must be superb:
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill absolutely needs to get rid of the football more quickly and make decisions much quicker. Many of the 14 sacks sustained by Tannehill can be attributed to his lack of pocket presence, middle and right side of the offensive line breakdowns, and the Dolphins running backs not sustaining their blocks longer. What's frustrating to most fans is this Jekyl and Hyde persona that Tannehill has had in each game. He's started the last two of three games looking like a rookie and then all of a sudden, he's shown up in the second half of games or in the fourth quarter. For the Dolphins to win, Tannehill needs to play better in the pocket and even take off and slide should he sense pressure.
2. Dolphins must stop the run:
While the Dolphins last year had an incredible run-stopping defense, this season's team has had increase in giving up big runs. Since the first game of the season versus the Browns, the Dolphins defense surrendered a 10 yard gain and then multiple short yardage gains. The flood gates were pryed open in weeks two and three versus the Colts and Falcons. Last weekend's effort versus Atlanta resulted in allowing 146 yards on the ground. While the defense tightened up in the second half, players are missing tackles, not shedding blocks, and runners are gaining yards well into the second level. If the Dolphins are going to win, they need to absolutely slow down the Saints run-game which is not their strength, but foricing the Saints into negative yardage will benefit the Dolphins.
3. Contain the Saints receivers:
The Dolphins must find ways to slow down the Saints offense, especially it's supporting cast of receivers. While the Dolphins game plan may include stopping tight end Jimmy Graham, his super-human strength might be too much to handle. Look for the Dolphins to get Dion Jordan on Jimmy Graham and his speed in coverage on intermediate throws. It's a look that the Dolphins haven't yet shown in games, but it's worth a try. In watching film, all of the Saints receivers catch the ball in traffic and get past coverage quite well. The biggest thing the Dolphins corners can do is not allow big plays down the field and get the linebackers to drop back into coverage. Drew Brees is beatable and teams that can sack Brees and rough him up usally win. However, blitzing Brees is a sure fire mistake given his ability to get off throws quickly and read the blitz. To win, the Dolphins must absolutely keep the Saints between the 20s. The Saints have to be shut down in the red zone and that's where Brees usually flourishes having been 2nd in red zone efficiency in 2012. However, if the Dolphins can hold the Saints in the red zone, the Saints lack of efficiency this season will be to their detriment. Forcing turnovers and disguising coverages will be critical for Miami to stop the Saints.
All in all, both teams have good special teams units and nothing can be taken for granted when playing the Saints. While, tonight's game and result will have an impact on the Dolphins win or lose, this game alone is a true test to measure how far or how little the Dolphins have improved. For most fans, winning tonight however it happens, will be an improvement for this Dolphin team and teams of years past.