It's not exactly the greatest secret in the world that in recent years, the much-maligned New Orleans Saints defense, for all of its notable failures in 4 of the past 5 seasons; have had some success over that time against Miami Dolphins QB Jay Cutler.
Dating back to a few seasons ago when he was the starting QB for the Chicago Bears, Cutler is 1-3 all time vs. New Orleans; with his only victory being a 34-32 win over the Saints at the Superdome during the 2008 season; in which he threw for 264 yards and a TD as a member of the Denver Broncos -- the team that originally drafted him back in 2006.
Other than that win nearly a decade ago, Cutler has had some rough experiences with the Saints defense over the years; that includes an 0-3 record vs. the Saints when he was the Bears starting QB which included him getting sacked a total of SIXTEEN times --- including 7 sacks the last time he faced the Saints in 2014.
Cutler had retired after last season and was set to become a network TV analyst for FOX Sports; but when the Dolphins lost QB Ryan Tannehill to a torn ACL injury, they were able to convince him to play one more season in 2017.
Cutler actually looked good in their Pre-Season, but it hasn't translated to much success thus far in the regular season. In 2 games, Cutler has thrown for just 450 yards and has a QBR of only 83.8.
This Sunday Morning, Cutler's hard luck against New Orleans in recent seasons will likely no doubt be a part of the defensive game plan for the Saints and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, although the Saints "D" will also have to be weary of the fact that Cutler is surrounded by an array of viable weapons at his disposal.
Those weapons include All-Pro running back Jay Ajayi, tight end Julius Thomas and wide receivers Jarvis DeVante Parker, former LSU star Jarvis Landry, and former Saints WR / 2013 draft pick Kenny Stills.
However, Ajayi did not practice on Wednesday because of a knee injury --- and his status and availability for Sunday Morning as of right now could possibly be in doubt.
Ajayi, who ironically is a native of London and is making a return to his hometown, was dominant last year with 1,272 rushing yards, including three games of more than 200 yards.
This year though, Ajayi has rushed for only 138 yards in the first 2 games combined and is averaging 3.5 per carry. As a consequence, the Dolphins have lost their last 3 games in which Ajayi failed to rush for at least 100 yards.
If Ajayi is unavailable (although it appears that he will still be able to play), then back-up RB Kenyan Drake would likely replace him in the line-up. In any event, the Dolphins will likely utilize Drake for a handful of touches just as they did last week; when Ajayi sat out the 4th quarter as Drake came in to relieve him.
Ajayi's injury aside, the Saints defense knows that a key to their success this Sunday Morning will be getting pressure on Cutler; and making him uncomfortable in the pocket and forcing him to make mistakes.
Part of those mistakes could be a costly interception here or there, and last week Cutler threw his 1st career interception as a Dolphin, as the Miami offense only managed 225 total yards against the lowly New York Jets in a 20-6 loss -- prompting head coach Adam Gase to label the team's performance at his Monday press conference as "garbage".
But Cutler on Wednesday was willing to accept and put the blame for the Dolphins' poor performance against the Jets, on himself.
“It was all around,” Cutler told reporters about Miami’s struggles. “Myself, we had a few breakdowns up front, we had some stuff outside, everyone kind of took their turn (making mistakes).”
While Gase had even taken responsibility for the team's offensive struggles and went so far as to point out his own shortcomings with regard to play-calling, Cutler yesterday was willing to put the blame squarely on the man looking back at him in the mirror every day.
“As a whole, offensively, we’ve just got to play better,” Cutler said. “That starts with me, so I’ve got to get back to work and help everyone stay on time and be efficient offensively.”
Gase told Orlando Sun-Sentinel reporter Chris Perkins yesterday that he’s not concerned that Cutler’s development being hindered by his brief retirement, as some observers had alleged after his performance last Sunday at the Meadowlands.
“I don’t think he’s behind,” Gase said of the 34-year-old Cutler, who as Perkins noted yesterday was retired for three months before signing with Miami in August. “He got hit early a couple of times. I think he was trying to get out of the pocket a few times. Maybe instead of pushing up, he started to escape.”
Cutler only registered a 70.3 passer rating against the Jets last week, and Perkins adds that Cutler often appeared to have poor footwork, which might have affected his accuracy.
Perkins says that Cutler seemed to throw off his back foot often; and it appeared to have nothing to do with evading a pass rush --- although the Jets did notch 2 sacks and hit Cutler a total of 7 different times.
But Gase told Perkins and other local Miami media yesterday that neither arm fatigue for Cutler nor any missed practice time he may have had, is what has caused problems for the Dolphins offense.
“There’s a lot of communication that goes on there,” Gase said. “He’ll tell me if he feels like something’s up, where his arm’s fatiguing or anything [like that]; but I’ve yet to have that day happen, so I don’t see any issues. Plus, the amount of throwing he actually does, it’s not a lot.”
Sunday Morning’s match-up with the Saints would seem to give Cutler a golden opportunity to finally get on track, since New Orleans still is only ranked 31st in the NFL in total defense --- despite their impressive performance in a 34-13 win over Carolina and former League MVP Cam Newton.
After being outright embarrassed in the first 2 losses by the Vikings and Patriots, the Saints were able to completely "shut down" Newton, who had one of the worst performances of his entire NFL career with a 17 of 28 performance for 167 yards with three interceptions and a 43.8 passer rating.
The Saints defensive line also registered 4 sacks, and despite yielding some big chunks of yardage to Panthers RB's Jonathan Stewart in the running game and rookie sensation Christian McCaffrey in the short passing game out of the backfield (McCaffrey had 9 receptions for 101 yards), essentially stymied the entire Panthers offense for a majority of the afternoon.
And yet despite that, the Saints "D" still ranks near the bottom of the League, giving up 437 yards per game in 3 contests.
One thing that will be key to a Saints win: stopping the Dolphins on 3rd Down, which has been a major source of concern for Miami and Cutler. Against the Jets last Sunday, the Dolphins converted on just 1-out-of-12 third down opportunities.
“Well, we’ve got to get more yards and move the chains,” Cutler said yesterday. “There’s a lot of different things that go into it, so we’ve just got to fix a lot of things.”
But can they get it fixed in time against a young Saints defense -- the youngest defense by average age in the NFL since 1991 -- that is growing in confidence after last week's win at Carolina?
The Saints sport the NFL's youngest defense since at least 1991 based on the average age of their Week 1 starters, per @NFLResearch.
— Marc Sessler (@MarcSesslerNFL) September 27, 2017
That could be the determining factor in deciding which of these two teams will leave London victorious.
“It could be this week. It could be next week. I don’t know. We’ve got the guys in the room. We’ve just got to make sure that everybody’s doing their job each and every play", Cutler said.
"(Our) offense is a little bit tricky, because it’s going to take eight, nine or 10 guys each play for the offense to really go off, and that’s consistently throughout the whole game. We’ve got some young guys and we’ve just got to make sure we get everybody on board and everybody understanding that.”
In this battle of "youth vs. youth", it will be the Saints defense's ability to have some success against an old familiar foe in Cutler, that will ultimately decide if New Orleans' trip overseas ends up being a successful one......