NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Whether Drew Brees passed to diminutive running back Darren Sproles or to 6-foot-7 tight end Jimmy Graham, there wasn’t much the previously unbeaten Miami Dolphins could do about it.
That’s how it is when New Orleans’ record-setting quarterback is running coach Sean Payton’s wide-open offense to perfection. If it keeps up, there’s no reason why the Saints can’t go marching back into the postseason.
Brees wound up with his 10th-career 400-yard passing game, threw for four touchdowns, and the Saints rolled to a 38-17 victory on Monday night that improved them to 4-0 for the first time since the 2009 season that saw them win their only Super Bowl.
“He is at a really sharp level,” Payton said of Brees. “He was outstanding.”
Brees and the Saints look a lot more like they did under Payton from 2009-2011, three straight playoff seasons that preceded their head coach’s 2012 suspension in connection with the NFL’s bounty probe.
Payton grimaces when asked to compare his 2013 team to his playoff teams past. He says that is for the media to do while he focuses on getting his team ready for the next game.
Payton figures that approach will keep his team from losing its edge, and it’s hard to argue with his results.
The Dolphins (3-1), meanwhile, have received a reality check and know they’ll have a lot to correct before they host the Baltimore Ravens next weekend.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Miami coach Joe Philbin said. “We’ll find out a lot about what kind of team we have by how we respond.”
Here are five things we learned from the Saints’ dominant display against the Dolphins:
POINTS APLENTY: In the first two weeks of the season, the Saints’ offense had not hit its usual stride, accounting for only three touchdowns. In the last two weeks, New Orleans has put the rest of the league on notice that Payton’s perennially prolific offense could wind up as good as ever. The Saints scored four TDs in a 31-7 rout of Arizona, followed by five touchdowns against Miami.
“You feel like you are operating at a high level and that anything that you call is going to work,” Brees said.
SAD SACKS: How well Miami would be able to protect quarterback Ryan Tannehill was a concern in the preseason — and still is. The Saints sacked Tannehill four times, after which outside linebacker Junior Galette boasted about how New Orleans “abused” Miami’s offensive line. Tannehill has been sacked 18 times in the first four games.
“It’s a big concern,” Philbin said. “That’s four-and-a-half a game. That is too many.”
CONSISTENT STOPS: The Saints’ new defense under first-year coordinator Rob Ryan has made it through four games now without a dramatic dip in performance. So far, the results represent a dramatic turnaround for a unit that ranked last in the league in 2012. With its defense now coming up with timely sacks and turnovers, the Saints have yet to allow an opponent to reach 20 points this season.
“I love playing for that man,” cornerback Jabari Greer, who intercepted Tannehill, said of Ryan. “The way he embodies a child-like enthusiasm and he gives that to the players, man, we honestly feel as if we’re playing a game … It’s fun.”
RUNNING BETTER: There might be hope for the Dolphins anemic running game, which averaged only 70.3 yards over the first three weeks, but looked better early on in New Orleans. Miami had nearly 60-yards rushing on its opening drive alone. Lamar Miller finished with 62 yards rushing, including a 5-yard TD, and the Dolphins gained 115 yards on the ground despite turning more to the pass as they fell further behind.
“We were having a lot of success with the running game early and it definitely hurt us not being able to continue using the running game as the game went on,” Tannehill said. “The offensive line did a great job and the wide receivers made the blocks early in the game and we were really moving the football.”
GRAHAM’S GAINS: Because of how closely Miami covered Graham, Brees only attempted four passes to his tight end. Those four attempts resulted in four receptions for 100 yards, including touchdowns of 27 and 43 yards. He now has three straight 100-yard receiving games, a span in which he’s scored five TDs.
“He’s a young man who has a tremendous, bright future,” Brees said. “Some of the things you see him do, you shake your head. … He feels like this is his moment and right now, he’s making the most of it.”
AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org