NEW ORLEANS – – A Dolphins defense that intercepted Saints rookie Ian Book twice and sacked him eight times was probably enough to take Miami’s winning streak to seven games.
Miami also got a big boost from rookie sensation Jaylen Waddle to outperform New Orleans on both sides of the ball.
Waddle caught 10 passes for 92 yards and a touchdown on his return from the COVID-19 roster, and the Dolphins beat the shorthanded Saints 20-3 on Monday night, becoming the first NFL team to win seven in a row after losing seven in a row.
“This team has stayed together, really all year,” said Miami third-year coach Brian Flores, who improved to 19-7 in games played after October. “Obviously we faced a lot of adversity at the start of the year. It revealed a lot – revealed the character of the guys in our locker room.
“Our guys kept fighting, they kept sticking together, they worked hard,” Flores added.
Nik Needham intercepted Book and returned the ball 28 yards for a touchdown to help Miami become one of four 8-7 teams – with Baltimore, the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas – vying for one of the last places in the AFC playoffs.
The book started for the Saints (7-8) due to a COVID-19 outbreak that removed 16 players from the active roster, including QB Taysom Hill and replacement veteran Trevor Siemian.
“Quarter rookie – we confused some looks on him,” Needham said. “Confused him a bit and I think that played a big part.”
With the Saints offensive line missing three starters, including both tackles, Book completed 12 of 20 passes for 135 yards.
“Keeping him straight tonight was a challenge,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “The first interception was a shot he will want to recover, but it’s a tough position for him.”
The Saints’ defense helped keep the game close to hand until Waddle scored on a 1-yard pass from Tua Tagovailoa to make it 17-3 with 5:10 left in the third quarter.
Tagovailoa, who entered the game with a best NFL completion rate of 69.9%, had 19 of 26 passes (73.1%) for 198 yards and the TD short. He was also intercepted by Marshon Lattimore.
THE WADLE EFFECT
Waddle missed Miami’s previous game due to a positive COVID-19 test. He has 96 catches this season, eclipsing New Orleans’ Michael Thomas for the second-most receptions by a rookie, and leaving him five short of Anquan Boldin’s rookie record of 101 catches in 2003.
Waddle said “it will obviously be pretty cool” if he breaks the record.
“The NFL is a special league so everything in this league, having a record is always great,” he said.
OPENING OF THE BOOK
Book received a howl of encouragement from the crowd when he first stepped onto the pitch and Saints fans cheered again twice later when he completed his first career assist. Then they let out a collective hiccup on his second pass – Needham’s 6 pick.
Needham said a “max blitz” helped set up his first interception for a score at any level of football.
“We knew the ball had to come out quickly, so I was just looking at the quarterback and just as he said, ‘Hut’ he was looking at the slot,” Needham recalls. “I think the ball tipped over and landed straight into my hands.”
The next two sets of Book also lasted three pieces each and ended in sacks. New Orleans only got a first try until the second quarter. This drive lasted five plays.
The Saints eventually moved the ball in their fifth series, needing just four games to win three first tries. A roughness to passer penalty on a 12-yard completion to Alvin Kamara moved New Orleans to Miami 23, setting up Brett Maher’s field goal to take the lead to 10-3.
“Personally, I have a lot to do to improve myself,” Book said. “There are things in my head already that I want to get back, but it was good to be there.”
Cam Jordan’s second sack of the game in the dying minute of the second quarter forced Miami to attempt a 59-yard field goal, which Jason Sanders missed, keeping the Saints’ deficit to one touchdown at halftime.
The Dolphins’ eight sacks tied a team record for one game. They became the first team in the Super Bowl era to have so many sacks, score a defensive TD, and hold an opponent under 200 total yards while not allowing any TDs or third-down conversions. The Saints went 0 for 12 on the third down.
INJURIES / COVID-19
Dolphins: Miami entered the game with seven players missing due to COVID-19.
Saints: In addition to having 16 players removed from the active roster by positive COVID-19 tests, New Orleans struck out starting left tackle Terron Armstead, who was not yet ready to return from a knee injury which also prevented him from entering the week before. Reserve right tackle Caleb Benenoch received treatment on the pitch for an injury in the fourth quarter. Receiver Tre’Quan Smith left the game with a chest injury.
Runners-up: Visit Tennessee on Sunday before closing out the regular season at home against AFC East rivals New England.
Saints: Greet NFC foe South Carolina on Sunday before heading to Atlanta to end the regular season.