Matchups: When Miami Has the Ball

Dolphin Digest's Alain Poupart and NinersDigest's Craig Massei break down the matchups of Sunday's game at Candlestick Park between the Dolphins and the San Francisco 49ers. Here we take a look at what to watch when the Dolphins offense is on the field.

DOLPHINS RUSH OFFENSE

For the past four seasons, the focus of the Dolphins offense was the running game, but that changed with the arrival of head coach Joe Philbin and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman. That said, the Dolphins would love for the running game to produce consistently and take some pressure off rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Unfortunately for the Dolphins, the running game just hasn't produced consistently. The Dolphins put up big numbers in Week 2 against Oakland and the following week against the Jets, but there's been little production from the ground game since except for the Seattle game in Week 12. Reggie Bush produced the first 1,000-yard season of his career in 2011 after joining the Dolphins in a trade with New Orleans and he appeared ready for a repeat performance after rushing for 185 yards in the Oakland game. But Bush hasn't been able to sustain that level of play. The Dolphins have used Bush in tandem with 2011 second-round pick Daniel Thomas, a big back with nimble feet and the ability to break tackles. Fullback Jorvorskie Lane, whose weight issues kept him out of the NFL for three years after he finished his career at Texas A&M, has carried the ball 13 times on the season. Miami also has fourth-round pick Lamar Miller, a speedster from the University of Miami who had some productive games early in the season but hasn't gotten much playing time lately. The loss of Pro Bowl tackle Jake Long is likely to be felt more in pass protection than in run blocking, with center Mike Pouncey and guard Richie Incognito the team's best when it comes to opening holes for the ground game.

49ERS RUSH DEFENSE

A year after leading the NFL in rushing defense, the 49ers find themselves right back near the top of the league in that department this season, yielding just 90.6 yards per game against the run with a star-studded front seven leading the way. The 49ers are very tough up front with All-Pro tackle Justin Smith, tackle Ray McDonald and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga bolstering the first wave of their 3-4 defensive scheme. Behind that trio are two tackle machines at middle linebacker in All-Pros Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman and two athletic playmakers on the edges in Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith, who both play the run well. Bowman leads the 49ers with 137 tackles, Willis is right behind with 124, and both are active sideline-to-sideline players who rarely leave the field. Justin Smith, who is in the midst of another great individual season, is a beast up front who has the ability to overpower offensive lineman and often commands double-team attention. Smith (111 tackles) has a nonstop motor and seems to be as strong at the end of games as he is at the start. He had one of his best games of the year last week at St. Louis with a team-high eight tackles, three of them behind the line of scrimmage. Smith's two comrades along the front wall also are good at plugging gaps and occupying blockers to allow the team's elite linebacker corps to come up and make tackles. The Niners get strong run support from their two hard-hitting safeties, Donte Whitner and Pro Bowler Dashon Goldson. Both can and have laid the hammer on opponents on a weekly basis, and they've combined for 172 tackles this season. Neither are the type to shy away from contact, and they fly to the football and clean up plays that get past the front seven.

DOLPHINS PASS OFFENSE

The most important player on the entire Dolphins roster is rookie Ryan Tannehill, whom the team sees as its franchise quarterback. Like all rookie passers, Tannehill has had his ups and downs and he's coming a rather mediocre performance last Sunday against the New England Patriots. Before that, Tannehill had played a very good game in a victory over the Seattle Seahawks. Much has been made throughout the season about the Dolphins' lack of weapons at wide receiver, but it must be pointed that Brian Hartline is 109 yards away from the first 1,000-yard season of his career. Hartline, of course, had a monster game at Arizona in late September when he caught 12 passes for 253 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown. The other starter at wide receiver is former University of Hawaii star and Oakland native Davone Bess, who is a tremendous route runner and has good hands. The other two wide receivers on the roster are young players Marlon Moore from Fresno State and rookie Rishard Matthews, a teammate of Colin Kaepernick's at Nevada. The Dolphins have five tight ends on the roster, but they lack the kind of big-time playmaker many teams — like the 49ers have. Veteran Anthony Fasano is a reliable pass catcher, but he doesn't have the speed to get downfield. Charles Clay is the opposite, an undersized receiver with good speed but a lack of size. The Miami offensive line will be playing its first game Sunday without Pro Bowl tackle Jake Long, who was placed on injured reserve after sustaining a triceps injury against New England last weekend. Former Stanford Jonathan Martin will move from right tackle to left tackle to take Long's spot, but that's the position he played in college. Tannehill has the kind of mobility to scramble for yardage when his pass protection breaks down.

49ERS PASS DEFENSE

The 49ers have made tremendous strides in pass defense, climbing from 16th in the NFL rankings last year in that category to second this year, yielding 189 yards per game through the air. That improvement has helped make San Francisco a complete defense, and the Niners rank only behind the Pittsburgh Steelers in total defense because they now can stop the pass as well as they stop the run. The Niners get great pressure on the edge from NFL sacks leader Aldon Smith, who already has tied the franchise record with 17½ sacks with a quarter of the season still to play. Brooks also is a threat rushing the passer on the other side and has 5.5 sacks. Justin Smith's sack totals are down this year, but he leads the team in both quarterback hits and quarterback pressures and often strangles blockers up front to allow Aldon Smith to race around the edge and make plays. McDonald also brings good interior pressure and is second on the team in both quarterback hits and pressures. When the ball does get into the air, the 49ers have been getting excellent play on the back end from each of their secondary starters – safeties Goldson and Whitner and cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown. Rogers, a Pro Bowl starter last season, and Brown both are strong in coverage and they are left to go one-on-one with outside receivers in several coverage packages. The Niners have been getting outstanding play in coverage this year from nickel cornerback Chris Culliver, who sees a lot of action as the Niners often have extra defensive backs on the field. Goldson and Whitner have made the middle of the field a danger zone for opposing receivers, who often pay the price when they come across the middle in their territory. The two safeties have laid out several opponents this season with crushing hits, the kind that players don't always get up from. Just ask New Orleans' Marques Colston or Arizona's Early Doucet. To be sure, neither is looking forward to meeting up with Goldson again.


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