The 49ers secured a 27-13 victory over the Miami Dolphins last Sunday in a game they could have been won a lot sooner. They beat the Dolphins in all three phases of play without dominating any. The win was more of a slow smother of a lesser foe than a display of force by a great team.
Following the previous week's damaging loss to the Rams, a victory was necessary and the team didn't disappoint. The Dolphins were all-but eliminated from playoff contention going into the game but put up a worthy fight in a game that was more-or-less meaningless for to them.
The Niners beat the Dolphins in many key categories. The 49ers outgained Miami on the ground 155-94 and through the air 166-133. They had more first downs (20-17), created more turnovers (1-0) and won the time of possession, though just barely.
Aldon Smith recorded two sacks to move him ahead of Fred Dean for the most sacks in a single season by a 49er. He also got within 3 sacks of Michael Strahan's NFL single-season sack record of 22.5. It should be kept in mind that the 49ers still have a home game against Arizona, who lead the league in sacks allowed on the year. Smart money is on Smith breaking the mark.
Frank Gore also passed some milestones. With his 3rd quarter touchdown plunge, he tied Joe Perry and Roger Craig for the most rushing TDs in club history with an even 50. He also topped 1,000 yards on the year for the sixth time in his career. He caused 6 missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus.
Colin Kaepernick turned in another solid performance. His final numbers were very Alex Smith-like in the end, going 18/23 with 185 yards through the air and zero touchdowns, zero interceptions. He seems intent on proving Coach Jim Harbaugh's boast that he could make any quarterback accurate to be true.
There were a few negatives for Kaepernick, though. He was sacked four times by the Dolphins, three by Cameron Wake. One of the biggest knocks on Alex Smith was his propensity for taking sacks. The fleet-footed Kaepernick is getting sacked at a similar rate as his deposed predecessor. He also fumbled a ball, though the 49ers recovered it. The other major failing was the team's play on third down. They went 2/10 on third down. Poor execution on third downs was another problem for the offense under Smith.
The one thing to separate Kaepernick's game against Miami from a typical 2011 Alex Smith game was his 50-yard game-clinching run. It was a read option that Kaepernick kept and sprinted around the left end. Two Dolphins tackled Frank Gore, whom the handoff was faked to. The rest of the defense's right side bit on the fake as well. Michael Crabtree sealed off the cornerback and Kaepernick had a clear path to the end zone shortly after the play started. With 2:10 left in the game, it gave the 49ers the final margin.
Michael Crabtree turned in another stellar performance. He caught 9 balls for 93 yards on only ten targets. He made up for an increasingly invisible Vernon Davis, who has 3 catches for 19 yards over the last three games. LaMichael James and A.J. Jenkins, the 49ers' top two draft picks, both saw the field. Jenkins didn't show up in the stat sheet, but James had 8 carries for 30 yards, a 15-yard reception, and proved that he could fill in for the injured Kendall Hunter and deserves the majority of the non-Gore run plays.
If Kaepernick's TD scamper was the game-clincher, special teams accounted for the game-changer. In the 3rd quarter, Dolphins return man Marcus Thigpen muffed a punt at his own 9-yard line that C.J. Spillman dove on before Thigpen had a chance to move. The play set up Frank Gore's record-tying run, the first touchdown of the game, and put the Dolphins under the pump.
The 49ers' defense turned in another top-shelf performance. They held the Dolphins to 227 total yards. Aldon Smith dominated rookie left tackle fill-in Jonathan Martin. He had the 2 sacks, 4 hurries and drew a costly holding penalty. Besides Smith, Chris Culliver showed why he's going to be a starting cornerback in this league one day. According to PFF, he gave up zero receptions on balls thrown into his coverage for the third time this season.
Another key in this game, and a key all season for the 49ers, was their tackling. They gave up 65 yards after catch against the Dolphins, but 49 of the yards were to running backs and large chunks of that came on passes caught behind the line of scrimmage. That means they gave up 16 YAC to the receivers and tight ends. Passes are being completed, but the receivers are stopped dead in their tracks. On the year they are giving up 5 yards per attempt, the lowest mark in the league. The entire secondary deserves credit.
One negative for the defense was the long 4th quarter drive given up to allow the Dolphins to stay in the game. The 13-play, 75-yard drive was capped by a beautiful, one-handed grab by tight end Anthony Fasano. It was one of the few highlights for rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who was held to 150 yards through the air on 17/33 passing. The score cut the 49ers lead to 20-13, after the 49ers appeared to have the Dolphins on the ropes.
Long 4th quarter drives on the defense has been a pattern for the 49ers this season. The list is long, and sometimes ugly. 7 plays for 45 yards by the Rams for the game-tying field goal last week. 14 plays, 81 yards by the Rams to take a late lead in the first contest. 12 plays and 86 yards by the Vikings to finish off the 49ers in Week 3. 10 plays and 80 yards by the Lions to pull to within a score in a game they had no rights to win. 5 plays and 76 yards by the Packers, also to get within a score in a game dominated by the 49ers.
Not being able to put away teams was a problem last season due to lack of offensive firepower. That's not the case this season. While the team appears to be more well-rounded, having added a passing game to the franchise's arsenal for the first time in a decade, the defense is lacking a bit of that killer instinct. All of the above mentioned drives were by teams that had been held in check for either most of the game or were dormant at the time. This kind of lapse could hurt them against the cream of the crop in the playoffs.
Speaking of the playoffs, the 49ers are nearly there. They can secure their ticket to the postseason with a win this weekend at New England. They can also secure the division with a Seattle loss. With two very tough road games in front of them, followed by NFC West doormats Arizona, the 49ers need to win out to maintain the No. 2 seed in the conference. The No. 3 Packers' schedule provides them with three games they will be heavy favorites in.
The road trip they are about to embark on will define the season for them, as well as their playoff seeding. The playoffs in the NFL is all about getting hot at the right time, so even if the team loses one of the two on this trip and slides to the No. 3 seed, it's not the end of the world, as long as they play top-level football. No one will fault them for losing on the road to a Patriots team that just destroyed the Texans, previously thought to be the top team in the league. Meet the same fate as Houston and people everywhere will be writing their eulogy.