In 1992, a Miami Dolphins team complete with Dan Marino and a corps of receivers walked into a rainy and sloppy field in Candelstick park and came up empty with only a field goal losing 27-3. Flash forward to 2012 and this matchup proves to be an opportunity for the 49ers to show they can be the best in the NFL or for the Miami Dolphins to show that they can win a big game on the road.
Looking at both of these teams, the biggest difference falls in the area of defensive takeaways in favor of the 49ers with a +5 margin in the NFC versus the Dolphins -10. However, with two teams that both can run the ball, play defense versus the run, this game should be decided by less than the -10 line the 49ers are favored by.
Here is a position by position breakdown for this game:
49ers: The biggest question coming into Sunday is whether Colin Kaepernick can prove that he is worthy of the starting job over Alex Smith and play clean football with no big turnovers. Last week, Kaepernick proved mortal with a botched lateral pass for a fumble and a last gasp intentional grounding from the end zone resulting in a safety. One thing that every team looks at when facing Kaepernick is his ability to run outside on a roll out and keep running for yardage or his ability to rocket the ball deep over the secondary into the hands of the 49ers many talented receivers. Kaepernick is extremely dangerous on the zone read play where he can decide to hand the ball off or take it and run. He has shown success against 4-3 teams such as the Rams and Saints. Versus the Dolphins, look for him to mix things up with zone read to Frank Gore or use his talents to run for first downs and more.
Dolphins: It’s obvious to many Dolfans that Ryan Tannehill has proven that he can have some good games followed by some very bad games. The two extremes tend to make most Dolfans writhe in pain banging their collective fists on the ground with each interception. However, Tannehill has shown to bounce back from bad games. In the game versus Seattle, Tannehill faced a team that was in the top 5 versus the pass and versus the run. Tannehill did just enough to make things happen and lead the team to victory. Last week, Tannehill survived musical chairs on the offensive line when Jake Long went down and adjusted and started to gain comfort in the pocket. One thing that Tannehill needs to do more of is use his legs when he sees no receivers open down field. Tannehill ran for some yardage last week versus New England. However, versus the 49ers space to run will be an issue because of the pass rush, so running is more of a last resort. Tannehill needs to build off the running game from his running backs and pass when necessary. Avoiding long third down plays will help the Dolphins. Versus the 49ers 3-4 scheme, it’s going to be difficult, but the rookie QB has proven many of us wrong before.
Advantage: 49ers (Harbaugh’s game plan is incredibly detailed and well executed.)
49ers: Frank Gore comes into this game playing really well when it counts. Gore is poised for another 1,000 yard season with 972 yards currently and is averaging 4.9 yards per carry with 6 touchdowns. Gore can break a run and it can be dominant versus the Dolphins who were worn down by power run teams like the Colts and Bills. However, the Dolphins defense has stopped down-hill rushers before like Marshawn Lynch of Seattle. The Dolphins can stop the 49ers rushing attack. Gore is critical for the 49ers in the red zone and on short yardage plays. Truly, Gore can take over the game, but he has yet to do so in awhile. See the Giants game as the clearest example of great D versus a big run game.
Dolphins: Reggie Bush is getting his in the form of subpar performances having not broken 100 yards rushing since week two versus Oakland. However, Bush has yet to break a big run since he did versus the Raiders in week 2. Sure Bush had some respectable TD runs versus the Colts and Bengals, but he’s been relatively quiet since. Look for the Dolphins to insert Daniel Thomas in second and long in order to get shorter yardage. In addition, Bush might be a better option in the passing game if the Dolphins use him as a receiver on screens and dump offs. However, Daniel Thomas is quietly emerging as Miam’s feature back with the fact that he’s sharing carries and scoring touchdowns in the redzone. Dolphins are featuring this thunder and lightning combination and if used correctly could pose a problem for the 49ers. Maybe Bush and Thomas can carry the load on Sunday!
49ers: In the little off season work the 49ers did do, they hauled in an aging, but still fast Randy Moss and Super Bowl savior Mario Manningham. In the past, Moss was able to zip past the defense in New England’s vertical threat spread offense, but Moss has really toned down as a threat. However, I am sure Harbaugh has film of the 2008 season shilacking of the Miami Dolphins with Randy Moss catching the ball even if he wasn’t open 50 yards down the field while in New England. Look for the 49ers to exploit the Dolphins confusing, but yet beatable coverage. Since the Dolphins have been susceptible to the big play down field, the 49ers have one of the best Tight ends in the game…Vernon Davis. Since being berated by then coach Mike Singletary, Davis has been one of the most productive 49ers and turned it up a notch last season in the playoffs. In addition, with the switch to Kaepernick at QB, Davis is a redzone threat and the Dolphins should fear him. He slips through the line with ease and puts his foot in the ground and snatches the ball down and can run. A tight end that has 4.5 speed is a scary thought. Biggest threat to Miami is Manningham who has made some big plays this season. He might not get down the field deep, but he’s a dangerous route runner and can beat up a secondary with his hands whether he pushes off a bit and he’s tough to cover. However this 49er team has another weapon at wide out, Michael Crabtree. Playing in the final season of his contract, Crabtree has become the 49ers go to receiver and has shown that he has the hands to make catches in traffic and does a solid job in the red zone. Crabtree has 57 receptions for 668 yards and 5 touchdowns up until this point. He could give Nolan Carroll fits if matched up on the outside. Lastly, don’t discount Delanie Walker, H-back from being a threat. Walker is a do everything guy and can make things interesting if he catches the ball in the red zone.
Dolphins: This isn’t even really an advantage for the Dolphins. Biggest reason is there is no real deep threat. I could mention that both Brian Hartline and Davone Bess have been incredible this season, but the running game has lagged and they have been the result of a ton of third and longs and inconsistent productivity in the red zone. Beyond this duo, Anthony Fasano just isn’t quick enough to get open and as a crafty tight end that if he gets into space can plod to the end zone. However, he’s quickly disappeared from this offense. The biggest threat to the 49ers is Kaepernick’s former college teammate Rishard Matthews. Matthews can be a vertical threat if he gets a quality pass to catch. Last week he was targeted two or three times and caught one pass for over 15 yards. However, he may or may not be able to make a difference if the 49ers press him and pressure Tannehill. Another weapon the Dolphins could utilize is big and nimble Charles Clay. Clay can be matched up on a seam route which would be used to get the ball over the linebackers if the safeties are deep.
49ers: The 49ers have an incredible line mostly built from two different regimes and philosophies in the draft. Joe Staley is proving to be a pro bowl caliber lineman and keeps the QB jersey clean. 49ers took a chance a couple of years ago on Guard Mike Iupati who is quick with his hands and can move a pile in the run game. In addition, Anthony Davis at Right tackle has been playing great all year and has made it tough for the opposing teams to get to the quarterback.
49ers have faced trouble with teams that have incredible pass rush and get pressure on the QB like the Giants and Rams. I am convinced the 49ers will have trouble facing the Dolphins defense that loves to bring a safety blitz and change their defensive line from a three to a four man front. However, the 49ers have played extremely well versus these hybrid type teams such as the Packers, tough physical teams, Detroit Lions, and sneaky defensive fronts such as the Saints.
Dolphins: Like the receiving corps, this could go in either direction for Miami. Either Jonathan Martin shows he should have been a first rounder or lives up to his serviceable tackle status ranked 63rd in the league while filling in for Jake Long on the left side. The biggest Jaugernaut is Richie Incognito and his ability to burrow holes in the 49ers three man front and linebackers. Can Richie get the running backs to the second level and pull? Also, with the right tackle spot looking compromised from the outset, Ryan Tannehill needs to have his head on a swivel.
Defensive Line and Linebackers:
49ers: Scary. Justin Smith and Aldon Smith are the biggest one-two punch in the league. Justin Smith gets to the QB with hard work and lunch pail blue collar approach where he beats his man one on one. Aldon Smith goes through people at an alarming rate. It’s almost scary to get in front of either player. However, everyone has a weakness and it could be coverage down the field. A lot of screen passes, play action fakes, and running the football well could help the Dolphins. However, no one on the line seems to not get more credit than Isaac Sopoaga. He is the 49ers version of BJ Raji or Paul Soliai. Sopoaga is a big burly dude that has quickness to stop the run and make the quarterback think twice. He brings pressure up the middle like a Vince Wilfork and finishes plays stopping the run. The guy is a nose tackle all the way. He is the definition of nose tackle. He is a big reason why teams can’t run on the 49ers. Let’s not forget both Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman own the middle of the field and can sink back in pass coverage with most tight ends.
Dolphins: Big Amigo Tony McDaniel, Jared Odrick and Paul Soliai have teamed up to be stoppers up the middle and let the pressure come from the right and left side via Randy Starks and Cam Wake. Since Wake is back on the line playing his more natural position, he has thrived versus teams with weak tackles. However, Wake has been manhandled by teams with strong athletic fronts, even held and it is possible that he probably has had whiplash given the nature of these holds. He will be held by the 49ers line. I can see the 49ers double teaming Wake and forcing the Dolphins to rush their linebackers and defensive end Randy Starks. I don’t think the Dolphins D can survive a grind out game or a bend but don’t break effort. The 49ers love to run and they are usually successful with their run game.
Advantage: Push, if the Dolphins stop the run.
49ers: The 49ers have the most productive safeties in the league. Donte Whitner, a cast away by the Buffalo Bills has shown he can hit people at an alarming rate with bone-jarring hits. In fact, not only can Whitner hit, he can catch the ball and turn up field on interceptions. The 49ers also have Carlos Rogers at corner who has found a home in San Francisco. He loves to jump routes and take the ball away from receivers. He is also very good at press coverage and can stop the best of receivers.
Kickers and Special Teams:
49ers: Ginn is scary, but the key to getting him down is crowding him quickly and getting shots on his legs. Don’t forget to wrap up on tackles because he can be quite elusive and likes to push away with his hands. Akers has been off lately. However, with a beautiful day forecast and little or no wind, kicker David Akers should have a clear path for three points.
Dolphins: Dan Carpenter has managed to turn his season around. He is now kicking the ball well again and not in on longer field goals. Marcus Thigpen has been a threat on the kick and punt and has shown he can score on both special teams play. However, both touchdowns have come in losses versus Houston and Buffalo. Dolphins have had lapses in coverage allowing two big returns for touchdowns this season. For the most part, the unit has been pretty consistent and they have blocked two fieldgoals and a punt. Without Jimmy Wilson (14 tackles on ST) the Dolphins could have an interesting day on special teams.
49ers: Jim Harbaugh led the 49ers to the NFC Championship game and they were a fumble non- call and special teams fumble away from going to the Super Bowl. His ability to scheme and game plan versus the greatest of football minds, shows that he can prepare his team for big games. Let's not forget that Jim Harbaugh was once to have been rumored to be the next Miami Dolphins coach, except one little problem, owner Stephen Ross did not follow the rule book on hiring a coach. Harbaugh is a darn good coach and has been consistently one of the best the last two seasons.
Dolphins: Joe Philbin has shown that he can make mistakes with the clock and timeouts, but he has started to settle in and make tough decisions. However, Philbin doesn’t call plays. Mike Sherman does. Mike Sherman has not put together a great game plan in weeks. In fact, it’s debatable whether Ryan Tannehill even can thrive with Sherman’s conservative game plan. If Sherman's plan is well-executed and the Dolphins don't turnover the ball, this could go the Dolphins way.
Advantage: Jim Harbaugh
The weather should be forecast to be in the 60s with sunshine. Perfect football weather in the Bay Area. In addition, the 49ers have more penalties than the Raiders this season. This could help the Dolphins if they need the yardage. Dolphins have been averaging under 20 points since the win over the Jets. That’s not a good stat if you want to win big games. Both teams are a physical tough bunch so anything can happen. Essentially two rookie quarterbacks that are prone to make mistakes could be the difference.
It’s going to be an interesting game. However, the team that starts the quickest, makes fewer mistakes, and takes care of the football wins the game.
Final score prediction:
49ers 20 Dolphins 14.