The Miami Dolphins head west this weekend to play the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers are currently leading the NFC West, despite switching from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick at quarterback. The change to Kaepernick has led to some explosive plays from the 49ers offense suddenly, but also means that Miami's rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill will actually be the more experienced quarterback on the field Sunday.
To assist us in preparing for the game, I asked five questions to David Fucillo, the managing editor of Niners Nation, the SB Nation 49ers blog, and the first winner of the Chad Pennington Crossing Enemy Lines Matty Award.
Kevin Nogle (KN): Clearly, the St. Louis Rams know some secret in how to contain the 49ers and how to tie or beat them. What is it about the Rams that causes the 49ers to struggle so much? Is it a player-for-player matchup issue, or has Jeff Fisher figured out Jim Harbaugh?
David Fucillo (DF): We're still trying to figure out what the heck was going on with the loss and the tie. In the tie, it felt like the 49ers defense came out sleep-walking and suddenly found themselves down 14-0 before knowing what hit them. Given the quarterback change in the first game (that's when Alex Smith suffered his concussion), it's hard to take much specific from that game at this point.
In the second game, the Rams game plan was strong on defense. They did benefit from Colin Kaepernick handing them eight points, but they did a great job stopping the run and forcing Kaepernick into more underneath stuff in passing. They kept an extra guy in against the run, holding the 49ers to 64 yards rushing by their running backs, with 23 coming on one rush. At the same time, they kept the 49ers receivers in front of them and forced Kaepernick to look to his underneath options. They used a ton of zone defenses and that created some measure of confusion for Kaepernick. A botched option play and a safety were brutal, but those aside, Kaepernick did not have a bad game per say. But his decision-making was not always ideal. That will come with the young quarterback, and I have to think the Dolphins will try and force him into making more decisions than he did against the Bears and Saints.
KN: How are fans reacting to the switch to Colin Kaepernick? Where do you stand on the Alex Smith vs Kaepernick debate? What happened last week that caused Kaepernick to struggle? Was it just an extension of the Rams matchup, or is it more of the fact that he is a young quarterback and prone to make mistakes?
DF: The switch to Kaepernick has been a roller coaster to say the least. Part of it came because Jim Harbaugh did not do a good job communicating the change, as he has not named Colin Kaepernick the starter for the rest of the season. He first described it as going with the hot hand, but for those who viewed Kaepernicks' Week 13 game against the Rams as a struggle, it is not easy to sell them on that. There has been a sort of Team Kaep vs. Team Alex mentality among some fans, which is disheartening to say the least.
At this point, Jim Harbaugh earned enough good will with me where I am inclined to roll with what he thinks is best. I do think communication was poor in this situation, but I also think it has become very clear that Kaepernick is his guy moving forward. It would take an epic meltdown for that to change at this point. I would be surprised if Alex Smith was on the 49ers in 2013.
As for his struggles against the Rams, I actually think they were blown up a bit because of two specific mistakes. The option pitch to Ted Ginn that was botched and recovered by the Rams for a touchdown, and the safety he took when he ran 17 yards back and into the end zone. In reality, the option pitch was simply a poor play call by OC Greg Roman, and he actually did get the ball back to the line of scrimmage on the grounding/safety penalty. But when you're the QB, these things land on you no matter what. He made mistakes that he can learn from, as opposed to mistakes due to lack of talent. There will be ups and downs as he is more or less a rookie quarterback (with one year sitting behind Smith), so it will be a bit of a rollercoaster.
That being said, I think Kaepernick brings an upside Alex Smith can't match. It comes with downside, but sometimes you gotta roll the dice
KN: The 49ers defense is amazing. They are currently ranked second against the pass and third against the run. Is there any way to attack them, and have any sort of success?
DF: One area the 49ers defense can struggle with at times is screen passes. It is not a complete kryptonite, but getting a guy in space against a sometimes overly-aggressive defense has done wonders for some teams. Reggie Bush had some success in this manner against the 49ers while he was with the Saints, and I would not be at all surprised to see a fair number of screens called to him on Sunday.
The key for Tannehill will likely be getting rid of the ball fairly quickly. The 49ers do not always bring a lot of blitzers, but Justin Smith and Aldon Smith generally won't give up on the rush and Aldon in particular brings serious speed and athleticism to the pass rush. If Tannehill can make fairly quick decisions, he can avoid what could be a bad day of Aldon Smith vs. Jonathan Martin.
One particular area to pick on would be Carlos Rogers in the slot. He has had his share of struggles there this season, so I would not be surprised to see the Dolphins go at him heavily (if the coaching staff knows what they're doing, of course!)
KN: One of the deciding factors in this game will be which team's strong point comes out on top, the 49ers' second ranked rushing offense or the Dolphins' eighth ranked rushing defense. Frank Gore is just shy of 1,000 yards on the year, and is averaging 4.9 yards per carry, while Kendall Hunter has an additional 371 yards, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. What do the Dolphins have to do to contain the San Francisco ground attack?
DF: The 49ers rushing attack is going to be an interesting one to consider this week. The 49ers actually lost Kendall Hunter for the season with an Achilles tear. They activated Brandon Jacobs behind Frank Gore, but the rushing attack struggled, in part because they lacked that outside threat. Hunter brought speed and athleticism that did great on sweeps, and anything else that could get him outside in space. This week, there are rumors the 49ers will finally activate second round pick LaMichael James. The former Oregon back can do all sorts of things in space, and given the running game's struggles without Hunter last week, he could fill that Hunter role and then some.
The key really though is making that first tackle. The Dolphins will likely load up the box against Frank Gore, as that is the best way to shut him down. Of course, Kaepernick is a big threat with his legs, so it will be interesting to see how the Dolphins balance against that.
KN: What player that Dolphins fans don't know should we be watching on Sunday? Who's poised to have a break out game?
DF: Cornerback Chris Culliver is a guy to keep an eye on. He comes in on the nickel defense, with Carlos Rogers moving inside to the slot on those plays. In reality, the second year Culliver might be the 49ers best cornerback at this point. He is not huge, but he enjoys getting physical with receivers and he generally does a good job in getting pass defenses. If the Dolphins key on him, I don't think they'll find success.
As mentioned above, LaMichael James might be active for the first time this year, which makes him a guy to watch as a potential break-out candidate. College fans likely know him well, but James has been inactive all season, so it could be easy to overlook him. He has crazy speed and athleticism, so if he is active, I suspect he'll get some opportunities in the read option with Colin Kaepernick, and also on some screens and sweeps.
I would like to thank Fooch for taking the time to answer my questions. Make sure you head over to Niners Nation to check out my answers to his questions.
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