The Miami Dolphins are facing the San Francisco 49ers this afternoon in a Week 13 inter-conference showdown. Most AFC versus NFC contests feature two teams who have not played each other in four years and really are not all that familiar with each other. That is definitely not the case when it comes to the Dolphins and 49ers.
First, they actually met just two years ago, with today’s game the additional inter-conference meeting that came with the addition of the 17th game in each season. Then, Miami head coach Mike McDaniel was the offensive coordinator for the 49ers last year, and has spent most of his career as an assistant to 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan. There are plenty of assistant coaches and payer connections between the two teams as well.
As familiar as these two teams are, there are always things to learn about an upcoming opponent. To get a better idea of who Miami will be facing this weekend, I turned to Ty Austin from Niners Nation to talk about the 49ers.
This offense has a quarterback executing at an elite level, with weapons all around him. There are receivers and running backs who can do multiple things and plenty of ways to create mismatches. But enough about the Dolphins’ offense, the 49ers seem to have a pretty decent offense as well. Adding Christian McCaffrey to an offense that already featured Deebo Samuel and George Kittle seems like a cheat code in Madden. With McCaffrey having had time to get up to speed with the 49ers offense, what should we expect to see from the 49ers offense? How much of what the 49ers do this year is different from the offense when Mike McDaniel was the offensive coordinator/running game coordinator?
The 49ers offense had admittedly looked sluggish to start the year, and, frankly, for good reason. They played their first game in a monsoon, lost their starting quarterback who took all the training camp reps as the number one the next game, and replaced him with a guy who spent the entire offseason recovering from shoulder surgery. Jimmy Garoppolo hadn’t connected with a Niners’ receiver since the NFC Championship game before he was thrust into action against the Seahawks. However, even as he spent more time on the field there still seemed to be a dimension missing, especially with the absence of second-year running back Elijah Mitchell.
The run game just wasn’t running the way it usually did under Shanahan. There were several valid reasons for this; Defenses across the league are more used to facing this system, the offense line featured three new faces on the interior, and the talent in the backfield looked unable to create their own gains. All of that could be solved with the addition of one superstar, so that’s why the Niners broke open the draft pick piggy bank to secure Christian McCaffrey.
Since his arrival, CMC raised the ceiling of what this offense could be to astronomical levels. On the very base level, his greatest asset might just be as the safety valve that Jimmy feels comfortable relying on when nothing else has opened up. McCaffrey has a delightful knack for taking little dump offs and turning them into 8-10 yard gains by making multiple defenders miss. On the more complex football-genius level, McCaffrey has allowed for Shanahan to tap into his ultimate vision, which appears to be a cadre of offensive weapons that seamlessly move from position-to-position in an attempt to further dismantle opposing defenses. Expect to see (if he plays) Deebo and McCaffrey on either side of Jimmy in shotgun with one set to go in motion. Who? Where? Best of luck.
As to how much is different now that McDaniel has vacated the coaching staff seems hard to say. They deploy more power looks than they did last year, but that also seems to be something that had been in the works when you consider Aaron Banks, a heftier guard than usually preferred by Shanahan, was drafted in 2021. One of McDaniel’s biggest influences last year seemed to be on Deebo Samuel as a running back. He apparently worked extensively with the receiver to prepare him for his usage as a back. Deebo’s been less effective as a runner this season, but that could also just be the league not being quite so surprised by the tactic.
San Francisco has the number one overall defense in terms of yards allowed per game (281.7), the top rushing defense in the league (79.5 yards per game allowed), and the top-scoring defense in the league (15.7 points per game allowed). What is working so well for the 49ers and how would you attack them if you were designing an offensive game plan?
In a word, Everything. DeMeco Ryans prepares his players and adjusts his plan of attack better than any coordinator in the league. Need evidence? Look no further than the fact the defense hasn’t allowed a point in the second half of a game for an entire month.
Of course, he’s only able to call such an aggressive game because he has a wealth of talent across the unit, including some of the most athletically gifted players to ever put on a Niners uniform.
I’m obviously referring to Nick Bosa and Fred Warner. Bosa’s complete physical dominance as an edge rusher, one of the most valuable spots in football, opens up a whole slew of options to his coordinator and the favor’s returned when Bosa’s set up to succeed with some incredibly dynamic and creative pass rush looks. Meanwhile, not only is Fred Warner one of the hardest hitting middle linebackers, he also has the speed, Football IQ, and instincts to essentially turn the entire middle of the field into a No Fly Zone. This might have been no better demonstrated than when he covered step-for-step and broke up a pass in the end zone intended for Cooper Kupp. He truly is the engine that makes the whole operation go 100 miles per hour.
Furthermore, the Niners spent in free agency to add Charvarius Ward, who has become a clear number one corner, which elevated the entire secondary. He’s feisty and practically unbeatable in man coverage. There’s also been the emergence of Talanoa Hufanga, this might sound familiar but I’ll continue, who relies on speed, Football IQ, and instincts to consistently make plays on the ball. He’s responsible for creating five turnovers and counting.
So, where do you attack this defense? I mean, I don’t know, and neither did the Saints OC Pete Carmichael last week when they got blanked for the first time since the early 2000s. Pick on second year corner Deommodore Lenoir who has been the replacement for Emmanuel Moseley? Seems like a good bet. You could try to go at the middle of the line, which hasn’t been as strong as in the past, but, oops, I forgot to mention, they’ll be receiving reinforcements this week in the form of Pro Bowler Arik Armstead. Glad I’m not Mike McDaniel.
There are obviously a lot of names on the 49ers’ roster that fans know: Garoppolo, McCaffrey, Samuel, Kittle, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, former Dolphins’ defensive end John Bosa’s kid Nick, but the 49ers are not a team the Dolphins face very often. Prior to the addition of the 17th game to the NFL schedule, these two teams would only see each other once every four years - along with one other time when they met in the Super Bowl, but we should not talk about that. However, it has actually only been two years since the last meeting between the clubs, a 2020 Week 5 meeting with Miami winning 43-17 in Levi’s Stadium. A lot has changed from that game, with Miami’s roster boasting Ryan Fitzpatrick, Matt Brieda, Lynn Bowden. Jr., DeVante Parker, Preston Williams, Isaiah Ford, and Jakeem Grant, while C.J. Beathard, Raheem Mostert, and Jeff Wilson were on the field for the 49ers. Besides the recognizable names from the 49ers, who will stand out for San Francisco this weekend on offense? On defense?
It’s hard to gauge just how well-known this player is because so much of the league-wide accolades have gone to Deebo, Kittle, and McCaffrey, but, for my money, Brandon Aiyuk has become an indispensable presence on this team. He currently leads the team in every major receiving category and has achieved a folk hero status among fans for his filthy routes that leave defenders in the dust. I’d expect him to be targeted early and often against the Dolphins. Also, a quick shout out here to Jauan Jennings. He’s the absolute dawg of a man who will almost certainly catch a ball on 3rd down and gain enough yardage for a first. It’s so notable that it coined a new term: “3rd and Jauan.”
As for the defense, I’d keep your eyes peeled for the rookie Drake Jackson out of USC. While still a bit raw, he’s made his presence known because of his natural athleticism and lanky build, which includes Go Go Gadget arms and other-worldly bend. It seems equally likely he could bat down a pass at the line or chase down a scrambling Tua if the moment arises.
Okay, I guess I have to do it. Trey Lance was supposed to be the starter for the 49ers this season, with Jimmy Garoppolo traded for a haul of draft picks. That did not materialize and now, after an injury to Lance, Garoppolo has the 49ers office clicking and the team looking like a contender in the NFC. Which begs the question - what happens in 2023? The 49ers cannot use a franchise tag on Garoppolo, so they either have to sign him to a big new contract or they have to let him hit the free agent market. Is there a path to Jimmy G returning? Could Lance be the odd-man-out, trading him somewhere in hopes that his potential brings back the picks that would make it make sense for San Francisco? How does this quarterback situation play out for the future?
Honestly, I’ve been answering this the same way all season, Trey Lance will be the quarterback next year. The Niners have invested too much for him not to be. He has a team-friendly rookie deal, dual threat capabilities, and a cannon to attack downfield, which are all things Jimmy G simply doesn’t. It’s why they moved heaven and earth to go after Lance to begin with.
However, at this point, I’m not so sure anymore. Do I think that Jimmy, a little burned from having his replacement drafted and prepared behind him, would relish the opportunity to sign a big contract somewhere else and leave the team with no other option than going with its unproven franchise quarterback? I would think so, but I also thought with 100% certainty that we’d never see him in a Niners’ uniform ever again. Well, that all changed little-by-little until it became an undeniably smart option for him to return to the team. Could a similar thing happen again? Your guess is as good as mine and, if I were you, I wouldn’t guarantee anything.
The line for this game, according to DraftKings Sportsbook, has the 49ers favored by four points and with a point total of 46.5. I feel like that line is probably about right, given the three-point home field advantage standard, with the 49ers and the Dolphins maybe about equal teams. McDaniel has clearly tried to replicate what the 49ers do as he molds the Dolphins into a powerhouse team in the AFC. Do you think this is a close game between two fairly evenly-matched clubs, or do you expect the 49ers to demolish this point spread?
This has the feel of a close game in the making. The familiarity of the two coaching staffs, the dynamic Miami offense, the Niners style of grinding out wins. San Francisco has a nasty habit of playing tight contests, and, to some degree, allowing teams to hang around when they shouldn’t. It’s especially dangerous to do that against teams who can score from anywhere on the field at any time and I’d say Miami fits that description. Even if the Niners keep Tua off-balance with consistent pressure for three quarters and look in control, I’d still be willing to bet it comes down to a nail-biting drive or two in the final fifteen minutes. If I had to put numbers on it, I’d guess:
49ers 27 Dolphins 21