Thearon W. Henderson
The 49ers' top-ranked defense should shut down the Dolphins anaemic offense. How the 49ers' offense responds after a poor showing in last weekend's loss to the Rams will say a lot about the team, their playoff chances and their second-year starting quarterback, Colin Kaepernick.
In week 8, following their 30-9 road trouncing of the New York Jets, the Miami Dolphins were sitting at 4-3 with two of their three losses coming in overtime and were the darling of many league analysts. They've gone 1-4 since, including a blowout loss at home to the Tennessee Titans, having played themselves out of playoff contention. That doesn't mean the Dolphins will roll over, or that this will be an easy game. Miami has all the look of an up-and-coming team under first-year head coach Joe Philbin.
While the Dolphins are still alive in the playoff hunt, it is a mathematical anomaly and they will likely be eliminated, even with a victory on Sunday. For the 49ers, on the other hand, the game is of the utmost importance. After Week 13's demoralizing loss to the Rams, a game in which the 49ers' offense gave up more points than its defense (10-6) and David Akers missed yet another game-winning overtime field goal, the 49ers need to bounce back. They lost ground in the division race and in the competition for the NFC's second seed. Sending a statement and gaining momentum going into their season-defining road trip to New England and Seattle will be critical.
Thankfully, the Niners have recent history on their side. Since Jim Harbaugh took over the head coaching duties in San Francisco in 2011 the 49ers have yet to lose two games in a row. As a matter of fact, the Bears' meaningless touchdown scored in garbage time, one week after the 49ers' tie with the Rams, was the first touchdown allowed by the 49ers under Harbaugh following a non-victory (confusing?). The scores the week after a Niners loss or tie are as follows: 13-8, 26-0, 20-3, 34-0, 13-6, 32-7. That's a combined score of 138-24. In those six games the 49ers have outgained their opponents 1949-1313 yards and, more tellingly, won the turnover battle 16-1!
History aside, this is a game that the 49ers should win easily. It's being played at home, the 49ers match up favorably, and the Dolphins are playing for nothing more than pride. The 49ers' dominating defense, is once again ranked among the best in most statistical categories of import. They are first in points allowed, second in yards allowed and second in first downs allowed and things are not likely to change against Miami on Sunday.
The Dolphins' offense, under rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill, has been effective at times, hanging up large yardage totals against some well-regarded defenses, most notably the NFC West's Cardinals and Seahawks. They rank 27th in points scored and 28th in yardage. Reggie Bush has continued his resurgence since signing with Miami, leading the team in rushing yards with 726 and touchdowns with five. The Dolphins' undoing has been turnovers. Only four teams are worse than Miami's -10 turnover differential.
The Dolphins have done a decent job protecting Tannehill, but the 49ers pass rush, led by Player of the Year candidate Aldon Smith, will look to change that. Miami will be without starting left tackle, and former No. 1 overall draft pick, Jake Long, who was placed on IR this week with a triceps injury. Aldon Smith will look to exploit rookie fill-in Jonathan Martin, whom Coach Harbaugh is familiar with, having coached him at Stanford.
The 49ers' defense has been stellar all season so it will be the offense that is under scrutiny against the Dolphins. Since Alex Smith was injured in the Week 10 tie with the Rams, Colin Kaepernick had looked like a budding superstar. Not so in last week's loss to those same Rams. He gave away 10 points, showing indecision at times, and generally played like a quarterback making his third career start. He'll get every opportunity to turn things around against a Dolphins' defense that's been abused in the passing game.
The Dolphins pass defense' is ranked 26th in the league in yards allowed. They've given up some shocking totals through the air this season, not so much for the amount of yardage as the opponent gaining it. They've let the Jets, Rams and Cardinals pass for near-season highs against them. One thing they've done well in the passing game, and as a defense as a whole, is keep opponents out of the end zone. They rank 4th in TDs allowed this season, thanks to the second-ranked red zone defense in the league.
Stopping the run has been the defense's strength and they come into the Week 14 tilt with the 8th ranked run defense. Their front seven, led by Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett , started strong, not allowing an opponent to break 100 yards rushing in their first five games. They've slowed down a bit, with five of their last seven foes breaking that barrier while the other two fell just short with 97 and 96 yards on the ground.
The 49ers' offensive line is ranked No. 1 in Football Outsiders' adjusted line yards and has been dominant since the season began. It will be interesting to see who gets the lion's share of the No. 2 running back reps. Kendall Hunter, had been great before being lost to a season-ending injury in Week 12's victory over the Saints. Last week, Brandon Jacobs saw the most carries out of the backups and was mostly ineffective. Rumors have circulated that second-round draft pick LaMichael James may suit up for the first time in his career. If James sees the field, we could see an opening up of the playbook to allow his pass-catching and tackle-breaking skills to be maximized.
It will be crucial for the Dolphins to get pressure on Colin Kaepernick. Cameron Wake leads the team with 11 sacks and has lined up on the offense's right for most of the season. The task of slowing him down falls to Anthony Davis, who's been up and down this season in pass protection. How the 49ers' backup running backs fare in pass protection could go a long way in keeping Kaepernick's uniform clean. Both Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter have excelled, and Hunter's replacement will need to do the same, which is, I suspect, one of the main reasons LaMichael James has yet to see action. His play-making abilities are unquestionable so the coaching staff must have some other reason for keeping James off the field to this point.
The Dolphins defense has not generated many turnovers this season, 12 in all. It would seem to be the time to let Colin Kaepernick loose and have him air the ball out. Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis are primed for big games against Miami's flagging pass coverage. Mario Manningham is not expected to play, so we may also see first-round selection A.J. Jenkins take the field for the first time. With Kyle Williams out for the season, Manningham injured, and Ted Ginn Jr. banged up and playing at a subpar level, Jenkins may be the third receiver behind Crabtree and Randy Moss. Or perhaps we see more two tight end sets and watch Delanie Walker slice through the defense like he did in New Orleans.
Had the 49ers not lost last week this would have had all the makings of a trap game. But, things being what they are, an embarrassed Coach Harbaugh, having been credited with being outcoached for perhaps the first time in his life, will make sure the team is disciplined and firing at all cylinders. The defense will continue their dominant play and can be expected to keep the Dolphins out of the end zone while creating turnovers. Aldon Smith against the rookie Jonathan Martin is a mismatch waiting to be exploited. The offense should take advantage of short fields and come away with many scoring opportunities.
Signs point to a big win for the 49ers. Colin Kaepernick has a taylor-made opportunity to bounce back from last week's embarrassment and the 49ers should head into their crucial road trip with a 30-6 victory against an overmatched Dolphins squad.