The five keys

SFI's five keys for the 49ers in Sunday's game against the Miami Dolphins at San Francisco's Monster Park:

1. MAKE FEELEY FEEL THE HEAT: A.J. Feeley will start at quarterback for Miami for the first time since September, and the Niners must take advantage of that fact and rattle him into the kind of mistakes that have plagued Feeley when he has played this year. Feeley directs an offense that ranks 27th in the NFL, and he has mostly been sitting on the bench the past two months behind Jay Fiedler before coming in last week against Seattle after Fiedler was injured. With the Dolphins driving for a possible game-winning score, Feeley threw an interception that was returned 63 yards by the Seahawks for the winning touchdown with less than a minute to play. The Niners must feed on Feeley's rustiness and force him into the crucial errors for which he is prone. Feeley has completed only 53.5 percent of his passes and has thrown eight interceptions for a passer rating of 55.2. With Miami ranked 29th in the league in sacks allowed per play, ends John Engelberger and Andre Carter need to step up and make sure Feeley continues to play like the struggling quarterback he has been throughout 2004.

2. DON'T HESITATE TO GO TO HICKS: The 49ers have to get their running game going against a defense that ranks 31st in the league in stopping the run. It's really that simple for the 49ers, because Miami's defense ranks first in the NFL in stopping the pass. The Niners will try to get things going again with Kevan Barlow as their starting tailback, but if he continues his typical struggles, the Niners should get backup Maurice Hicks into the game sooner rather than later and let him take his shots. The Miami defense also will be without star linebacker Zach Thomas – who had at least 11 tackles in each of the Dolphins' first 10 games – so that should give the Niners even more openings to find room to run. If Barlow can't take advantage, go to Hicks early and often and see what he can do. Either way, find a way to run against this defense.

3. BREAK THE 20-POINT DEFENSIVE BARRIER: The 49ers have allowed at least 21 points in each of their 10 games this season. The Dolphins have scored 20 or more just twice in their 10 games – and more than 14 points on just three occasions. The Dolphins – last in the NFL in points scored – have scored 13 or fewer six times. But the 49ers have allowed 114 points in their last three games alone. Something has to give on Sunday, and the Niners must make sure it is their defense taking advantage of this opportunity to keep points off the board against an offense that struggles mightily to put them there.

4. WIN THE TURNOVER BATTLE: One of the primary reasons the 49ers have allowed so many points is because their offense turns the ball over so many times and gives the defense short fields to protect. The Niners also have had several of their interceptions returned for touchdowns. But the Dolphins also turn over the ball at a high rate and rank at the bottom of the league with the Niners in turnover differential. The Niners must win the battle of turnovers against an opponent that also has a propensity for them – or make none at all for the first time this season against a defense that has produced just 10 turnovers all season. Amazingly, the 49ers have thrown an interception or lost a fumble in each of their 10 games.

5. THE RATTAY-TO-JOHNSON CONNECTION: One of the primary reasons the Dolphins are so tough defending the pass is star-quality cornerbacks Patrick Surtain and Sam Madison, a pair of Pro Bowlers who will make it tough for San Francisco's receivers to get open. Safeties Sammy Knight and Arturo Freeman are not in the same category, so the Niners must work the middle of the field while their receivers occupy Miami's outstanding corners. With Miami also missing Thomas, this will be a good time for Rattay to strike up his passing collaboration again with tight end Eric Johnson, who was limited to just one reception last week in Tampa Bay. It was the first time this season Johnson had caught fewer than four passes in a game that Rattay played. To keep the offense moving through the air, the Niners must get the Rattay-to-Johnson connection clicking again against a defense that will make it tough in other areas.


Niners Digest Top Stories