I feel like this game is a great microcosm of the season.
The Miami Dolphins weren’t expected to do well. However, the team hung in there, made some good plays on both sides of the ball, and raised expectations. Unfortunately, the team then fell short in the end, giving fans reasons for optimism and pessimism about the future.
The Miami Dolphins no longer have even a theoretical shot at a winning season - and a playoff berth would require Miami winning out the next 3 games (which is possible, for reasons I'll explain later) as well as catastrophic collapses by 3 teams, the Steelers, Bengals, and Jets. Of those 3, collapse (1-2 or worse) is only likely for the Jets, who I suspect will lose to San Diego or Buffalo or both. The Bengals and Steelers are getting healthier and lost to respectable teams today, while the Jets struggled to beat the Jaguars.
With that in mind, a worthwhile reason for fans to watch the rest of the games is to see how our young guys at key positions finish the year, since that will heavily influence this team's priorities in the offseason.
Let's start with Special Teams - a mixed performance.
Field Goals: Dan Carpenter went 2 for 2 on field goal attempts, connecting on a 28-yard attempt and a 53-yard attempt. Carpenter is a perfect 17 for 17 under 45 yards but 2 for 7 (29%) between 45-55 yards for the season (19 for 24).
Kick coverage: On 4 kickoffs, 1 was a touchback. In the 3 "returnable" kicks, the Dolphins held the 49'ers to an average of 26 yards and a long of 34 yards.
Kick returns: Marcus Thigpen had 4 returns for an average of 32 yards and a long of 56 yards. Jorvorskie Lane also fielded a kick and returned it for an impressive 24 yards, though he fumbled the ball before recovering it.
Punt coverage: Brandon Fields punted 3 times for an average of 47.3 yards (long of 55 yards), with a net average of 36.7 yards, and only 1 downed inside the 20 (though it should have been 2). On 1 punt return, the 49'ers PR Ted Ginn Jr. was held to an average of 12 yards per return and a long of 12 yards. However, for the second week in a row, this unit was responsible for a huge mistake. LBer Jonathan Freeny committed a significant error by fielding a punt inside the 5 yard line (good) but then casually walking into the endzone for a touchback (bad). That extra 20 yards of field position may have been critical, as the 49'ers drove down the field on that drive for a field goal with only seconds to spare just before halftime.
Punt returns: Thigpen returned 2 punts for an average of 5 yards and a long of 10 yards. The 49'ers punter Andy Lee averaged 40.8 net yards punting on 4 punts, with 1 downed inside the 20 yard line and a long of 55 yards. Again, for the second week in a row, this unit committed a huge error. Thigpen muffed a punt that was recovered by the 49'ers inside the 10 yard line, leading to an easy 49'ers touchdown a couple of plays later.
Coaching/Overall - A performance by special teams that fell below expectations for the fourth week in a row. Early in the year, everything was going right for special teams except for Dan Carpenter (who was struggling from distance but otherwise was solid). The past few weeks, something new has gone wrong each week - except for Dan Carpenter, who has been playing well.
To recap the recent failures - After allowing its first punt-return TD 3 weeks ago, special teams allowed their first kickoff-return TD 2 weeks ago. Last week, the unit was responsible for a turnover deep in Dolphins territory (Fields fumbled snap) AND kept a Patriots drive alive with a roughing the punter penalty on Jimmy Wilson. This week, the unit AGAIN turned over the ball deep in Miami territory, courtesy of a muffed punt, and also gave the 49'ers a boost of nearly 20 yards in field position by wasting a terrific punt that landed inside the 5 yard line. I didn't think I'd say this earlier in the year, but the only bright spot on special teams has been Dan Carpenter lately.
For the second week in a row, special teams has been responsible for 2 of Miami's worst plays of the game, and I have no easy explanation for why our special teams unit (ranked top 5 just a few weeks ago by Football Outsiders) is getting worse as the season goes on. I think that unlike our struggling offense, the issue on special teams isn't teams exploiting weaknesses revealed on film. I think the main problem is that players are beginning to make bone-headed (and unforced) mistakes at the worst possible time of year. I'm not going to be too hard on Thigpen because he's been highly productive this season (2 TDs, top-5 in the AFC in both kick and punt return yards average), and this is Thipgen's first truly big mistake. One of the downsides to elevating rookies to big roles is that they're prone to rookie mistakes, and that's been a theme this season in all 3 phases of the game.
Next, the Defense - which like last week had again had a solid performance but collapsed in the fourth quarter.
Run defense: Allowed 102 yards rushing on 22 carries by 49'ers running backs (4.6 yards per carry). Simply put, the 49'ers offensive line won more often than it lost, particularly in the second half.
A separate issue was mobile QB containment. Without fail, Miami has struggled against mobile QBs, who regularly had one of their best games of the year against Miami - whereas even good non-mobile QBs like Brady and Dalton have had mediocre games against Miami. My theory is that pass-rush is the only thing that keeps Miami's pass defense respectable, so QBs who can avoid pass rushers have a field day against our struggling DBs. Kaepernick fits the mobile QB mold, but he was contained for most of the game, with just 5 carries for 3 yards until for the 49'ers final drive. That drive, Kaepernick on a trap-option saw Odrick and Soliai bite on the handoff to a running back, decided to keep the ball, and badly beat backup OLB Jason Trusnik (in for the injured Koa Misi) after Trusnik lost contain and allowed Kaepernick to gain 50 yards and score a touchdown. I excluded Kaepernick's numbers (6 carries for 53 yards) from the total run defense, but when you combine them, you see a total of 155 yards on 28 carries (5.5 yards per carry).
The 49'ers only had 38 rushing yards on 8 carries at halftime (4.8 yards per carry), so of those 155 total yards, 117 yards came in the second half on 20 carries (5.8 yards per carry), and nearly half of those yards came on Kaepernick's final run. Overall, a poor day in run defense, more so in the fourth quarter as our unit appeared to wear down without Misi.
Pass rushing: Miami did a very good job of generating pressure on Kaepernick, particularly in the first half. Cameron Wake completely abused the 49'ers right tackle for 2 sacks. Wake got a 3rd sack on a play in which the 49'ers offensive line diligently blocked every Miami defender....except Wake. However, once the 49'ers had a lead, they renewed their commitment to the run game (rushing twice as much in the second half), which left fewer opportunities to rush the QB. Jared Odrick also contributed an impressive sack, notably while he was lined up a 4-3 DT at the time.
Pass coverage: Kaepernick had a solid but unspectacular passing day - 18 of 23, for 185 yards and 0 TDs and 0 INTs (8 yards per attempt). It was a mix of pressure by Miami, Kaepernick encountering at times good coverage by the Dolphins secondary on all of his targets except for Crabtree, and Miami lucking out on a no-call against RJ Stanford who was clearly committing pass interference on Randy Moss on a well-thrown TD pass that Moss eventually dropped.
Like with the Patriots last week, Miami lucked out in that a key receiver (Gronkowski last week) was out with injury. This game, WR Mario Manningham was out, but like Wes Welker last week, Miami couldn't contain Michael Crabtree. Despite knowing he'd be a focal point of the passing offense, 49'ers receiver Michael Crabtree (9 catches for 93 yards) gave Miami issues. 49'ers WR Randy Moss (2 catches for 30 yards) was barely productive, and no other WRs had a single catch. That's a total of 11 catches for 123 yards or 11.2 yards per catch for wide receivers - overall, a good showing, though it's disappointing Miami couldn't slow down the obvious #1 receiver.
Sean Smith had a mixed game, as Miami played a lot of zone defense (which is not Smith's strong suit), and Smith appeared to give up 2 completions to Michael Crabtree. He was also called for defensive pass interference on 4th and 1, giving the 49'ers a key first down.
Nolan Carroll was rarely targeted.
Jimmy Wilson was out with a hip injury.
RJ Stanford, as mentioned above, lucked out in avoiding a pass interference call on a long touchdown pass, but otherwise was rarely targeted.
Because of the heavy use of zone, the 49'ers were able to get favorable matchups for Crabtree, notably targeting him frequently while he was being covered by a linebacker. The use of zone was most likely done to prevent Kaepernick from scrambling on passing downs, because it allows defenders to keep their eyes on the QB, but it did allow for the 49'ers to create mismatches.
As for tight ends - Vernon Davis (1 catch for 4 yards) and Delanie Walker (1 catch for 20 yards) finished with a combined 2 catches for 24 yards (12 yards per catch), our best performance of the season. Miami has gotten a little better at covering tight ends this season, after struggling mightily earlier in the season even up against "no-name" tight ends. However, I still don't trust our group to matchup that well against the Patriots' elite duo when Rob Gronkowski comes back from injury, so I wouldn't be opposed to acquiring a coverage OLB/safety to help. Still, this game, Burnett and Dansby did fairly well.
As for the running backs/fullback - Frank Gore (2 catches for 22 yards), LaMichael James (1 catch for 15 yards), Bruce Miller (2 catches for 1 yard) combined for 5 catches for 38 yards (7.6 yards per catch).
Coaching/Overall: Run defense was a little shaky in the first half but collapsed on the final drive. The Dolphins generated pressure and sacked Kaepernick 4 times. Pass coverage of receivers not named Michael Crabtree was excellent, but Crabtree had himself a very nice game. Coverage of tight ends was very good.
Our redzone defense was good, with only 2 of 4 49'ers redzone possessions ending in a touchdown.
Our third down defense was outstanding, as Miami allowed the 49'ers to only convert 2 of 10 third downs (20%), largely because of 49'ers penalties allowed Miami's pass-rushers to take advantage of long third downs.
Kevin Coyle Effect: Miami failed to generate an interception. Out of 13 games so far, Miami's defensive backs failed to generate an interception in 7. Reshad Jones is our only defensive back to intercept more than 1 QB this season - Smith has 2 INTs from Kevin Kolb, and Clemons has 2 (redzone) INTs from Mark Sanchez. Wilson and Carroll have failed to generate an INT despite a huge increase in playing time this season. Richard Marshall has 1 INT back in week 3, but he is on IR. And again - Miami's defense leads the league in pass-attempts against, as teams are largely one-dimensional against us, so Miami clearly could use a ball-hawking CB or safety (or both).
Miami's defense allowed 27 points, the third highest total of the year, and failed to stop the 49'ers running game in the fourth quarter. While our offense's inability to sustain drives hurts our defense, poor tackling plagued the defense in the second half, and the defense allowed a 50-yard TD run when they were expecting a running play, which is unacceptable.
Last, the Offense - which shows flashes of competency but struggles to score.
Offensive line: Considering the opponent and the injury circumstances, not an awful performance.
In terms of pass protection, Miami yielded 2 sacks, 4 QB hits, and multiple pressures that Tannehill had to dodge.
Now, 1 sack was allowed by Jonathan Martin, who is either our temporary injury replacement for Long or our left tackle of the future. The sack came on an Aldon Smith bullrush in which Smith knocked Martin flat on his back. Despite the major knock against Martin being his lack of strength, Martin did fairly well against Justin Smith (IMO, one of the strongest defensive linemen in the NFL) whenever the 49'ers moved Justin Smith to defensive end. However, Aldon Smith was a handful for Martin, especially late in the game as the Dolphins became a more 1 dimensional passing offense. At times, Martin was helped by Tannehill dodging pressure (I counted 2 near-guaranteed Aldon Smith sacks that Tannehill dodged single-handedly), and Martin sometimes required a tight end or running back provide help. Reggie Bush was forced to commit a holding penalty after Smith beat Martin to the inside to prevent another sack. So for those of you tracking at home, Martin had a very good day against a backup defensive end last week against the Patriots (yielding a coverage sack), and he had a very rough outing against one of the top pass rushers in the NFL. My rough estimate is that Martin would give us around league-average play at left tackle next year, assuming modest improvement in the offseason, but obviously how Martin performs in our upcoming games will help provide a clearer picture of how much we'd be sacrificing by not having Long at left tackle.
In terms of run blocking, Miami in my opinion did a great job of using the pass to open up the run in the first half, burning the aggressive 49'er safeties with play action passes. I've long wondered why Mike Sherman doesn't call more play action passes when his favorite excuse for our struggling run game is the opposing defense committing heavily to stop the run for the entire game. Miami averaged 4.3 yards per carry, which is a very respectable number against the 49'er defense. However, right after Miami's most successful drive of the day (which featured balanced playcalling), Miami went VERY pass heavy, and our offense stalled in the fourth quarter.
Receivers/Tight Ends: Anthony Fasano doubled his average weekly production. After having just 1 catch for 5 weeks in a row, he had 2 catches this week for a total of 9 yards. Granted, one of those was a beautiful 1-handed 6-yard touchdown catch, but let's not pretend 10 yards per game is acceptable production from a starting tight end in the modern NFL. While he was heavily used as a blocker due to the O-line situation, he was averaging 1 catch per week even before Jake Long's injury. Every NFL team could use a solid blocking tight end with reliable hands like Fasano (think a poor man's Jason Witten). However, Fasano has had multiple offensive coordinators and QBs in his 7 seasons in the NFL, and yet he has only had over 500 receiving yards once in his career. If no QB/OC combination has been able to get Fasano to consistently produce, that's probably a sign that he'll never become a regular 500+ yard receiving tight end, which virtually every elite offense in the NFL has nowadays.
Charles Clay is disappearing again. After his breakout game against the Seahawks, the Patriots only allowed him to get 2 catches for 26 yards, and this game, the 49'ers only allowed Clay to get 1 catch for 3 yards. The good news is that Clay has had a catch in 3 consecutive games for the first time this season. The bad news is that he's back down to 1-2 catches per game.
Michael Egnew was inactive....For reference, Patrick Turner was a third round pick at WR (a position of need) who was cut by Miami after his rookie season in which he had 0 catches. However, even Turner (a future draft bust) was active for 2 games as a rookie before being cut after preseason his sophomore season. I'm aware Sherman says nice things about Egnew in press conferences, but he said wonderful things about Naanee until Naanee was cut, and actions speak louder than words. It's difficult to imagine Egnew going from "fourth string TE not good enough to see the field" to "a key contributor on offense" after 1 offseason, so feel free to add TE to your mock drafts if Egnew is inactive the entire season.
Davone Bess had a nice bounceback game, with 50 yards on 5 catches, though he did fumble the ball after a big hit (recovered by Incognito).
Brian Hartline finished with 2 catches for 34 yards, though he did also draw a defensive pass interference call. He was largely matched up against Chris Culliver (corrected), who made him disappear. It seems like Hartline does well against most cornerbacks, but struggles against truly elite cornerbacks (Antonio Cromartie, Richard Sherman, Cortland Finnegan, etc.), especially now that he's the focal point of opposing defenses. Still, I think Hartline could be very productive (and not disappear in games) next year if Miami acquires another boundary receiver that strikes as much fear into defenses as Brian Hartline. Despite that focus on Hartline, our "deceptively-fast" receiver found himself left wide open on one play early in the game. Unlike last week, Tannehill threw a catchable pass in that situation, but Hartline was unable to stay upright after a shoestring tackle by a 49'ers safety (with no other defenders in sight). Hartline has good speed, reliable hands, and is a sure route-runner, but he doesn't have the build to be a regular yards-after-catch receiver who can break tackles, so that's a need even if the Dolphins keep Hartline.
Marlon Moore had 0 catches again, though he dropped a catchable deep pass after getting two hands on the ball. The ball was only slightly overthrown, but keep in mind that Moore drew an illegal contact penalty on the play, and the contact from the defender probably slowed Moore down, which means that pass is probably right on target if Moore isn't held. Miami apparently gave up on those WR end-around plays involving Moore that worked well against Seattle but were successfully defended by the Patriots...so that was a 2-game innovation I guess.
Rishard Matthews was targeted once on a deep route but was well defended. After a couple of 20+ yard catches, teams are aware of Matthews' speed, and he hasn't been able to get much separation against elite defenses (Seahawks and 49'ers), though he's only been getting significant snaps at WR for 4 games. He's a guy who needs to make some plays in the next 3 weeks to feel secure about his job next year.
Running backs/Fullback: Jorvorskie Lane has disappeared. I'm considering the possibility that the Dolphins don't bring him back next year, given how few snaps he's been getting recently, as well as the fact that Clay has become an adequate run blocker at FB who is far more versatile. Fewer teams carve out a spot for a traditional blocking FB on their roster nowadays (most prefer "hybrid" players like Clay), and Lane hasn't been trusted as a ball-carrier or pass-catcher in weeks.
Reggie Bush finished with 14 carries for 65 yards (4.6 yards per carry) and 5 catches for 38 yards (7.6 yards per catch), for a total of 103 yards on 19 touches (5.4 yards per touch). Also, Tannehill missed Reggie on 1 passes that could have gained a decent amount of yardage (thrown at Reggie's feet). A second missed pass to Bush came when he was well defended by a safety, and while the throw was poor, the safety looked like he was in good position to defend any pass. I said before the season that while Bush wanted to lead the NFL in rushing, I thought the best use for him was in a Marshall Faulk-type role where the goal is 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards. 15 or so carries plus 5-10 catches per game, for a total of 20-25 touches per game is what I thought we'd give Reggie all year, and his performance today against a good defense definitely should NOT dissuade Sherman from actively trying to get Reggie the ball.
Daniel Thomas was very clearly in the doghouse for his fumble last week. He spent most of the game on the bench, and he was given only 2 very predictable runs up into the heart of the 49'ers defense for a grand total of 3 yards (What Mike Sherman was thinking, I have no idea). Keep in mind when plotting whether or not Miami will let Reggie Bush go that Bush leaving would require Thomas to take on a greater role....
Lamar Miller contributed 3 carries for 1 yard. As a receiver out of the backfield, he converted a key 3rd down in the redzone with a terrific 8 yard catch and run.
Quarterback: My thoughts about Tannehill....
I'd say a poor game for Tannehill, though there's plenty of extenuating circumstances. 17 of 33 (52%) passing for 150 yards (4.5 yards per attempt), 1 TD, and no INTs is far from awful but wasn't anywhere near good enough. Tannehill had a few bad throws, including a pass in the first quarter that was either too high for Fasano or too low for Matthews (and was nearly intercepted), a very low and near uncatchable throw to Bush that was an incompletion (Tannehill seems to struggle to find Bush when Bush runs routes), either a backshoulder throw or underthrow to Reggie while he was being covered very well by a safety (not a linebacker) running down the sideline, and my personal pet peeve, targeting Davone Bess running deep down the seam with a (taller) defensive back close behind Bess (which made it nearly impossible for the ball to reach Bess, since a lower throw is likely intercepted).
One issue is that on some of Tannehill's questionable throws, every other receiver was covered (per the beat reporters, TV announcers, and what I could see on TV), so it's a situation where Tannehill is trying to fit throws into VERY tight windows to receivers who aren't consistently able to outcompete defenders for the ball. That leaves the QB and WRs looking very bad. I imagine Tannehill's statline would look a lot better if Hartilne didn't collapse after a glancing blow from a safety in the first quarter, or if Marlon Moore held onto the ball, but at the same time, better throws by Tannehill would have helped as well.
Tannehill did a lot of things well with at times shaky pass protection, using his legs to gain yards and keep plays alive. Multiple beat reporters on Twitter and even the announcers on television kept remarking at how none of Miami's receivers were getting open, with Dan Dierdorff remarking that Miami "desperately needed a playmaker at wide receiver." It's always a bad sign when a receiving corps is so bad that the announcer is giving personnel advice to one of the teams. Also, Mike Sherman seems to alternate between balanced playcalling - think Miami's last scoring drive, in which the team silenced the crowd by driving from midfield (after Thigpen's long kick return) and scoring a touchdown - and telling Tannehill to pass on every play.
Unlike last week, when Tannehill made some genuinely poor throws and left big scoring opportunities on the field against a poor defense, Tannehill made some not-so-great throws but was largely dealing with an outmatched receiving corps.
Coaching/Overall: Our offense was highly unbalanced even on a day with the run-game being relatively productive - with 19 rushing plays compared to 33 passing plays. Miami's struggles on third down continued as Miami went a poor 5 for 13 (38%) on third downs. Mike Sherman did (finally) try some new lineups on offense, notably with Lamar Miller as an RB and Bush in the slot, and he did make a concerted effort to get Reggie the ball (which resulted in productive touches). However, Mike Sherman forgot Reggie Bush was on the roster on our second to last drive, down by just 1 touchdown. That pass-heavy drive ended on an incompletion on 4th and 10. Hint - if the team is in four-down territory, perhaps calling at least 1 run play (like a draw) to gain some positive yardage might be better than 4 "kill-shots" thrown into the endzone. That's especially true when Reggie just had terrific success on a draw play 1 drive earlier.
Referee Critique: Overall, I thought this was the most fairly called game in weeks. Miami got burned by a few calls - the Sean Smith PI on 4th and 1 was ticky tack AT BEST, and the 49'ers got a couple of very favorable spots. However, Miami benefited from several questionable calls, including a no-call on RJ Stanford (who was beaten by Moss on a long TD pass), and a roughing-the-passer penalty that I honestly thought was a legal helmet-to-chest hit. It wasn't a perfect game, but both sides had a couple of calls to complain bitterly about, which is a huge improvement over the past few weeks, in which nearly all the 50-50 calls went against Miami.
In Summary: A near-complete team loss again, as special teams continued their recent struggles while the offense looked hopeless to the point where TV announcers are expressing sympathy for our rookie QB. Miami moved the ball fairly well, but games are won and lost based on points, and 13 points isn't enough to win most games, especially on a day in which the defense allowed 27 total points, with 14 coming in the second half.
A Look Ahead: With 3 games to go, I'm predicting a 7-9 finish, with as high as an 8-8 finish.
Buffalo Bills - The Bills are playing good football now, but I think Miami wins this game as well with this game in Miami.
New England Patriots - The Dolphins beat up Brady a week ago, with 4 sacks and several more QB hits. I don't know if the Patriots will be willing to risk Brady getting injured for an entire game in week 17. Even if Brady does play the whole game, I think Miami keeps things fairly competitive. If the Patriots have nothing to play for in week 17, with Rob Gronkowski still recovering from a broken forearm that he suffered on an extra point kick that came with the Patriots up by around 20 points with 7 minutes left in a game, I don't think Belichick risks injury to his most important player in an unimportant game.
This is significant for 2 reasons. First, an 8-8 finish would be a respectable (though still disappointing) end for this season. Second, Jeff Ireland likely keeps his job if Miami finishes with 6 or more wins. I could see us losing to the Patriots, and perhaps the Bills. However, if Miami loses to the Jacksonville Jaguars next week, which only happens if Chad Henne plays well while surrounded by the Jaguars' talent, 5-11 becomes a realistic possibility, and Jeff Ireland doesn't survive that. A Chad Henne victory next week at Sun Life Stadium, ironically enough, could end the Jeff Ireland-Era. Chris Kouffman brought up this scenario on Twitter, and it's worth monitoring. I found a nice article on possible future NFL GM candidates that I plan on posting after Miami's next loss. For now, Miami's hopes of a playoff spot are (just barely) alive, so I'd rather not jump into "offseason" mode just yet.