Eyes On: NFL UK 2017 – Saints @ Dolphins

Game 2 of the 2017 NFL International Series is in the books. Drew Brees brought his 1-2 New Orleans Saints to Wembley and came away with a 20-0 victory over Jay Cutler’s Miami Dolphins, who were 1-1 having started the season a week late due to the impact of Hurricane Irma. This was not the most exciting of games, with the first half especially disjointed due to frequent penalty flags, which left the fans booing at times. However a field goal from Saints kicker Will Lutz with the last play of the half avoided the first 0-0 halftime score since Tim Tebow and Caleb Hanie faced off in December 2011.

 

Coming home

For many people, the big talking point ahead of the game was the return of Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi, who moved to the USA from London when he was 7. Ajayi showed some real flashes of the talent that led to him becoming only the fourth player in NFL history to rush for over 200 yards in consecutive games last season. However, the Saints defense were clearly aware of the danger he could be and made a concerted effort to stop him as the game went on – especially in the second half – and he was eventually limited to just 46 yards from 12 rushes. The Dolphins were forced to rely on Jay Cutler and the passing game and as a result could not stay on the field when on offence, putting the Saints in the driving seat.

A costly loss

Jay Ajayi and the Dolphins offense has been massively hurt by the preseason injury to quarterback Ryan Tannehill, which has ended his season before it even began. Under the guidance of Adam Gase, Tannehill clearly improved last year and if this game is anything to go by, he will be sorely missed in 2017. Jay Cutler was due to be in the commentary booth this season, but Tannehill’s injury and his previous history with Adam Gase pulled him back onto the field.

On the opening drive, Cutler looked effective running down the clock while moving the chains, but then threw a poor pass that was intercepted in the end zone. Tight end Julius Thomas has taken some flack for his play, but while I agree he had such a physical advantage on the quarterback that he should have been able to do more to help Cutler, but Thomas’s positioning suggests the pass was due to go to his back shoulder (where the cornerback would have no chance of intervening) rather than to the side it did. From that point on, things went downhill for the offence, with Cutler finishing the game with 20 completions from 28 attempts for just 164 yards. While the completion percentage looks good, the yardage shows how much Cutler struggled. Looking at the stats on NFL.com, the longest passing play of the game was a 23 yard reception by Julius Thomas. Cutler was also sacked 4 times in the game for a total loss of 36 yards, meaning that the average gain per passing play was 4 yards. Short passes and screens may be high percentage plays, but against a defense that is well organised it will be difficult to make the big plays, especially if the running game is being well marshalled too. Sometimes you have to take the shot downfield, even if it is just to keep the defense guessing.

This is not a piece to bash Jay Cutler: I can’t imagine how hard it is to come out of retirement and get back into running an NFL offense, especially considering it is a new team so a new playbook for him. What doesn’t help though is that he is not a like-for-like replacement for Tannehill. Tannehill is a much more mobile quarterback, capable of making big plays with his legs. This means that when Tannehill is playing, a defense must always take into account his ability to scramble on pass plays or the possibility of the read option on rushing plays, which gives that extra bit of space for receivers and running backs to exploit. Matt Moore is not a mobile QB either, so if Cutler continues to struggle, it will be interesting to see if Colin Kaepernick is given another chance in the NFL, especially considering the current NFL solidarity with the protests he started.

3 into 2 doesn’t go

He’s had a few down years with injuries and suspensions, but Adrian Peterson has always been a star running back and an bell-cow for the Vikings. Having moved to the Saints this season, it was clear his role would be reduced due to splitting time with Mark Ingram, who has been the main man at his position for the Saints in recent years. However, the Saints are very much a pass-first team, which is no surprise considering Drew Brees has been responsible for 5 of the NFL’s 5,000 yard passing season, so rushes will be limited. At Wembley, Ingram rushed for 45 yards off 14 carries, whereas Peterson was limited to just 4 carries for 4 yards. What must worry Peterson is that, judging by this game, he is not even number 2 on the depth chart, as versatile rookie Alvin Kamara totalled 5 rushes for 25 yards and 10 catches for 71 yards and a touchdown. Kamara looked very impressive against Miami so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get a few more rushes as the season goes on, if Peterson wants to continue living up to the nickname ‘All Day’, it looks like he’ll have to move elsewhere.

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