NEW ORLEANS -- For the first 21 minutes of Monday night’s game, the Miami Dolphins did something that no other defense had been able to do against the New Orleans Saints all season. They contained tight end Jimmy Graham, holding him without a single catch.
The only problem? The Dolphins allowed Saints running back Darren Sproles to rack up more than 100 receiving yards during that span.
Then when Miami finally started focusing on Sproles, Graham wound up with 100 receiving yards of his own as the Saints’ offense exploded in a 38-17 victory inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Quarterback Drew Brees threw for 413 yards and four touchdowns, while the Saints moved to 4-0 on the season -- a far cry from their 0-4 start in 2012.
“Well, 0-4 to 4-0, this feels a lot better,” Brees deadpanned afterward. “But still we haven’t played our best football, and it feels good to say that. We left some opportunities out there tonight. We scored 38, but it should’ve been more.”
Believe it or not, Brees is probably right. The Saints’ passing offense is starting to show signs of finding the same rhythm it had in 2011, when Brees shattered Dan Marino’s passing mark with 5,476 yards and 46 touchdown passes.
The Saints still need to find a running game; that has been practically nonexistent this year. But clearly they’ve rediscovered the nearly-indefensible combination of Graham and Sproles (not to mention receiver Marques Colston and several other weapons in their versatile attack).
“We tried a variety of different coverages. We tried zone. We tried man. We tried some pressures,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said of the unique matchup problems the Saints present.
Sure, the Saints had those same weapons last year. But Graham and Sproles both battled injuries. And their symphony was missing its conductor.
When asked what’s different now, Sproles didn’t hesitate.
“Coach [Sean] Payton’s back,” he said.
And what specifically has Payton brought?
“He’s a genius,” Sproles said.
Sproles then expanded his answer to say that Payton is great at being able to move his pieces around and figure out where a defense is most vulnerable.
“He knows how to call the plays,” Sproles said. “He knows what he’s seeing.”
Payton has been seeing even more opportunities to exploit defenses over his past two seasons as New Orleans coach.
The Saints' offense has been outstanding ever since Payton and Brees first arrived in 2006. But they became a whole different monster in 2011, when Graham and Sproles emerged as their two most dynamic weapons (Graham as a second-year player at the time, and Sproles as a free-agent acquisition from the San Diego Chargers).
Graham and Sproles create two of the most unique matchup challenges in the NFL. And they’re downright deadly under the direction of Payton’s scheming and Brees’ on-field decision-making.
Graham said it’s also made a big difference that Brees was around during the offseason. He was gone last summer while working out his new contract. Graham pointed out this is actually the first time in his career that he and Brees have been together for an entire offseason.
“And I feel like the first four games, it’s showing,” said Graham, who now has 458 receiving yards and six touchdowns through just four games.
“It feels great,” Graham said after catching four passes for 100 yards and two scores on Monday night. “This offense is so dynamic, and in the first half [the Dolphins] were doing some things differently, especially when I was split out, with safeties and corners. And that leaves Sproles one-on-one. And he’s terrifying from the backfield. He’s just a dynamic player.
“And this team is so dynamic. We have so many weapons. And Drew knows exactly where to go with the ball. There’s no hesitation in his game at all.”
Case in point (A): On Brees’ first touchdown pass to Graham in the second quarter, he fired the ball up high for Graham to go up and get it between three defenders for a 27-yard score. And when asked later if he was “surprised” Graham came down with it, Brees said, “No. We have pretty high expectations for ourselves. ... And there’s certain places where I know I can put the ball where it’s Jimmy or nobody.”
Case in point (B): Sproles was actually Brees’ third option on a 13-yard touchdown pass before halftime. But as Brees described it, “We had Jimmy and Marques running up on that side as well. So I think there was a lot of attention put on those guys, and Sproles just kind of snuck out to the sideline.”
Obviously, it’s not just a two-man show in New Orleans. As ESPN analyst KC Joyner said Monday night, Colston is an awfully dangerous “third” option in a passing attack. Colston also had zero catches in the first half before the Dolphins picked a different poison. And he wound up with seven catches for 96 yards in the second half.
Even more impressively, the Saints did this without injured receiver Lance Moore, who had a 1,000-yard season last year. Rookie receiver Kenny Stills caught four passes for 38 yards. Second-year pro Nick Toon caught his first NFL pass for 18 yards on a still-critical third-and-12 play in the first half. And veteran tight end Benjamin Watson caught his first touchdown pass as a Saint in the third quarter.
“You know, we move ‘em around so much and we do so many different things with ‘em that I think it’s hard for defenses to get a key on exactly where they’re gonna be,” Brees said. “We’ve had a lot of time to practice it, so we’ll continue to find ways to do that and keep defenses off balance.”
The Saints offense just getting warmed up? A scary thought.