It was a night of rookies and deep, deep backups in the Superdome as the Saints jumped out ahead quickly and stymied the Dolphins all night long.
The Saint reserves, starting the game, zipped down the field in less than four minutes on the legs of undrafted rookie Pierre Thomas. The former Illini scored the game's only points on a two yard plunge, and finished with 81 yards on 16 carries.
Thomas, who started, made a strong push to make this team, despite four runningbacks ahead of him in Deuce McAllister, Reggie Bush, Aaron Stecker and fourth round pick rookie Antonio Pittman. While McAllister and Bush are set, Stecker has limited offensive potential and a $1.25 million salary, and Pittman runs hard but lacks breakaway speed and has real problems in blitz pickup. The Saints may be forced to keep five runningbacks with Thomas' impressive performances in the past two games.
A hungry Pierre Thomas returned the opening kickoff, started at runningback, took a screen 38 yards down the right sideline and later fought his way into the end zone for a score. He appears at this point to be a more complete back than Pittman, who finished with 77 yards on 21 carries. Pittman also caught three passes, netting one yard. Escapability in the open field is not Pittman's strength, and on multiple occasions he also lacked the burst to threaten the outside. One word to describe his pro career so far is hesitant. Pittman did make a good run for a 14 yard gain off a draw in a four-receiver set late in the game.
On the other hand, Thomas' second catch of the night saw him bounce off of, scoot past or hop step around three different Dolphins before being slammed down by Jorge Cordova for a nine yard gain. That gain set the Saints up with first and goal at the eight, but a holding penalty called on Andy Alleman stalled the drive and Olindo Mare's 33-yard field goal attempt against his former long-time team banged the left upright, no good.
Mare later missed a 55-yarder just wide to the right, though it had plenty of leg, and in the fourth quarter plunked the left upright from 50 yards out. Not the best showing to the home crowd, in front of your former team.
Returning to get some playing time after missing recent games with leg injuries, Marques Colston and Devery Henderson started the game while most of the starters sat. Colston gathered in two catches early on from Martin, including a comeback route for a 13 yard gainer that showed Colston's quickness power positioning skills are still top notch. Henderson did not make a catch though Martin targeted him on an underthrown deep route pass that fell incomplete.
Dolphins runningback Patrick Cobbs, who lit up the field at North Texas, gave the Saints similar fits. Alfred Fincher, starting at strongside linebacker, had fits trying to corral the 5'8 elusive back. His quick back step and change direction eluded Fincher and Anton Palepoi on separate plays, while Brian Simmons and Anwar Phillips also wiffed on Cobbs early in the game as the Dolphins were quarterbacked by their second round pick John Beck (not Brady Quinn). Later in the game, Rodney Leisle got a diving should and arm on Cobbs', only to grab thin air.
Of the early Saints defense, the ageless Jay Bellamy delivered the first huge hit of the night, leveling Derek Hagan on a short route in the open field. If anything, the veteran Bellamy is without a doubt a good trainer for youngsters on how to be a heat-seeking missile in the secondary.
Veteran MLB Brian Simmons was very active early in the game, starting between Fincher and Dhani Jones. His battle with Simoneau may be won by default if the latter's knee injury limits him in the regular season. Simoneau missed the last two preseason games but his knee injury is not considered significant.
Anton Palepoi, who has apparently wrapped up the backup left defensive end job, is a master at getting his hands up into the quarterback's passing lanes. Palepoi played through into the fourth quarter, and countless times he has sent opposing passer's throws spiraling into the air, and tonight Alfred Fincher picked off Palepoi's second deflection of the night. On that play, hung up by a cut block, Palepoi was smart enough to put his hands up. Beck tried to throw it through the former second round pick of the Seahawks. Palepoi is not especially tall, long in the arms or a gifted leaper, but seems to know when to stand tall and get his arms in the air when he's beaten at the edge of the pocket.
Another impressive performance at defensive end was from Willie Evans, starting at right end after starting in NFL Europa this spring, ended the half with back-to-back sacks on John Beck, though he missed the ankles of mobile Beck earlier in the quarter. For his first sack Evans beat the cut block by the left tackle and blind sided Beck, who backed out of the pocket into him. The next play Evans went inside the stunt of DT McKinley Boykin, who started opposite Hollis Thomas, raced inside the left guard and hog tied Beck around the ankles.
Undersized Evans, the former Mississippi State Bulldog, made two plays that were virtually handed to him but used his wile and agility to put himself into position. He also has a dynamite swim move that regularly beat undrafted free agent LT Julius Wright, but it was a pure power rush off the edge that allowed Evans to drop Beck for a third time at the two minute warning in the fourth quarter. Evans was also credited with four tackles and three hurries. Other DE backups Josh Cooper and Rob Ninkovich did not play, though Ninkovich may not be ready to go after knee surgery.
FB Kevin Dudley has probably won a job on the practice squad but may find a regular season roster job elsewhere in the league if he's claimed off waivers. He's a gifted receiver out of the backfield and a sturdy blocker when he positions himself well. Though it doesn't count for a lot at the fullback position in the Saints' offense, he's faster than Karney, one of the best lead blockers in the NFL.
TE Billy Miller made some nice grabs and should make the opening season roster as pass catching tight end. His blocking has improved but he's just not suited to be on the field in a power running attack. Martin and Miller couldn't connect on a pass down the seam into the end zone before the end of the half, but the diving Miller couldn't reel it in.
At halftime, the Saints were just dominant. Like last week against second year QB Brodie Croyle, they made a young quarterback in John Beck look helpless. Passing yards at halftime were 136 for Martin to 15 for Beck, not counting two sacks for a loss of 13 yards. Patrick Cobbs had seven carries for 33 yards in the first half, 71% of the Dolphins' offensive production. Starting cornerbacks Fred Thomas and Usama Young played well, with Thomas making a great pass breakup on a difficult to defend comeback route.
QB Jamie Martin was steady and efficient, completing 11 of 15 passes for 136 yards and giving way to Tyler Palko in the second half. Another undrafted rookie, Palko looked it at times. His first snap was a play action pass, rolling to his left, to a wide open Tremain Hall who made a great move to gain extra yards, his first of three completions. The Saints gave Palko lots of rollouts because the scrappy young quarterbacks prefers to improvise, sometimes to a fault. Palko followed his first three completions with four incompletions, an eight yard gain to Meachem and then a scrambling, waiting, underthrown deep pass into double coverage for Tremain Hall that was intercepted. Palko had some center-quarterback exchange problems with backup lineman Dave Yovanovits, scooping ball of the turf in time to make the quick pitch, gathering in a bouncing botched exchange for an impromptu scramble and later on a fourth down conversion missing a shotgun snap that went over his head. Two offensive snaps later, Palko lost another snap from Brian Ferentz that the Dolphins recovered.
NFL Europa veteran S Chris Reis was one of the few Saints to hit and drop Patrick Cobbs in the open field, and later made a fantastic pass breakup in the left flat. He led the team with six tackles and a whopping four credited pass breakups. Reis also picked off each Dolphins QB, first when he stepped in front of TE Courtney Anderson to take one from Hamdan in the third. Fifth round pick CB David Jones also picked Hamdan when the QB forced a ball into coverage and Jones was behind the play. The play before that, Reis almost collected another off of Hamdan but the ball went off his hands. Back to back lousy throws by Hamdan brought John Beck back on the field.
Two drives later Reis picked Beck again, the fourth for the team, after a deflection by Fincher. Two teams from Louisiana, LSU and the Saints, combined for 10 interceptions in their simultaneously played Thursday night games. Jones almost picked Beck again inside the two minute warning, when he and WR Kerry Reed both skyed for a ball in the end zone. The ball was incomplete, but Jones did a great job playing the ball in the air.
Another young defender Rodney Leisle is battling for a job, but made a nice sack on Beck in the fourth quarter, then gave the crowd a very impressive flex-and-roar.
WR Robert Meachem was on the field early in the game but didn't see much action. Meachem didn't always contain his man but was scrappy in run blocking, which he should be given his runningback-like, 6'2, 214 pound frame. Another draft pick from last April, Jermon Bushrod, looked great dealing with various speed rushers.
The Saints must cut 22 players, almost all of which played for them against Miami, before Saturday.
The Saints finished the preseason with a 3-2 record, winning three straight. They start their regular season in one week, on Thursday night against the Colts.