Breaking down the game

A season that started out so encouragingly for the Dolphins is on the verge of collapsing rather quickly, and they would do well to start straightening things out this Sunday against the Saints. Coach Nick Saban has consistently said he's more concerned about the process of the Dolphins getting better than in the end result, but the team has fallen short on both counts in recent weeks and that's what has been more discouraging.

In New Orleans, the Dolphins will face a team that has had to endure more obstacles than setbacks than perhaps any in recent history.

The damage caused by Hurricane Wilma this week was substantial, but it was nothing to what Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans -- or the Saints.

This is a team without a home, really, and Sunday's game against the Dolphins will be the first of four at LSU's Tiger Stadium after two games at San Antonio's Alamodome and a joke "home game" at Giants Stadium against the New York Giants.

On the field, the Saints have been the victims of some questionable calls -- then again, who hasn't? -- and some bad luck, namely the loss of running back Deuce McAllister, merely the team's best player.

Also, the team's top wide receiver Joe Horn has been out the last few weeks with a hamstring injury and he's again a question mark for Sunday's game.

Yet the Saints have managed to be competitive almost every week, except for the 52-3 debacle at Green Bay and there's no reason to think this will be a cakewalk for the Dolphins.

Quarterback Aaron Brooks is very athletic and very inconsistent, but when he's on, he can be trouble.

The Saints running game now is in the hands of veteran Antowain Smith and backup Aaron Stecker, although short-time Dolphins running back Jesse Chatman also could become a factor at some point.

In the last two games, the Dolphins have given up an average of 180 yards rushing, so maybe this is the game the bleeding stops in that department.

But the New Orleans passing game has to be a concern because the Saints have big-play weapons in Donte Stallworth and Az-Zahir Hakim and the Dolphins secondary is not only shaky but banged up.

Already, safety Tebucky Jones has been placed on injured reserve and cornerback Sam Madison didn't practice all week because of a hip injury.

The big problem on offense for the Dolphins is establishing an identity and also getting any kind of production out of the passing game.

Gus Frerotte was brutal at quarterback against Kansas City, but Saban was quick to point out this week that he didn't get much help, whether it be spotty pass protection or his receivers not making the big catches.

This is not good for an offense built around the passing game.

Maybe the Dolphins will start focusing more on the running game, particularly after the success Ronnie Brown has had in recent weeks.

The Dolphins were successful against Kansas City in cutting down their penalties; the next step is to actually start making first downs and moving the ball downfield.

As we said earlier, this is a critical game for the Dolphins. A loss would drop them to 2-5, a far cry from a few weeks back when they were 2-1 and actually were in first place in the AFC East.

Saban cautioned at that time not to get caught up in what was happening around the division, and the Dolphins' recent problems have made it obvious he was right.

Before the Dolphins can start worrying about division races and thoughts of playoffs, they actually have to start playing winning football.

Sunday would be a good time to start.


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