Can the 49ers manage Another Win on the East Coast?
December 11, 2008 at 12:47 PM • 0 commentsAJ Bolino
By AJ Bolino
Since the final gun of the 49ers' improbable victory over the New York Bretts, any fan still paying attention had to wonder: can the Niners beat the Dolphins on the road next week? As I sat above the south end zone at the 'Stick surveying the field at the end of last week's game (and enjoying some father/son bonding time spent laughing at a Jets fan in a brand new Favre jersey that looked like he was about to cry) it dawned on me that the Niners have a chance to leave Miami with a win. A second road win in three weeks would be quite an accomplishment for this team. In fact, the Niners haven't accomplished the feat since the departure of Steve Mariucci (who coached consecutive road wins at Dallas and at Arizona in the second half of the 2002 season).
Scheming to Defend Against the Wildcat
Miami's offensive resurgence in 2008 has a lot to do with getting the ball into the hands of their punishing rushing tandem, Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. On the season, these two have been particularly effective, rushing for 1,312 yards (4.15 YPC) with 13 TDs. The addition of the "Wildcat" offensive set (a formation in which one RB takes a direct snap, one RB lines up in the backfield and the QB lines up as a receiver) in Miami's early season upset victory over the Patriots was shocking, and has inspired a bevy of copycats across the league. It has worked well for Miami and first year coach Tony Sparano, as the Dolphins have far exceeded initial expectations coming in to the season.
To date, the 49ers defense is giving up 3.8 YPC to opposing rushers, and held the Jets playmakers Thomas Jones and Leon Washington to a combined 58 yards and 1 TD last week. For the bulk of that game, the defense ran a 4-3, 1-gap look, allowing their smaller interior defensive linemen to use their quickness to occupy blockers, take away gaps, and funnel rushers to tackling machines Patrick Willis, Takeo Spikes and Manny Lawson. With the run contained, edge rushers Parys Haralson and Rod Green were free to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback. The results were far better than expected...added pressure up front gave the secondary a chance to play tighter than usual, holding future Hall of Famer Brett Favre to 137 yards, no TDs through the air and 1 INT.
If the Niners plan on shutting down the Dolphins offense in similar fashion, defensive coordinator Greg Manusky will likely dial up a similar scheme to combat the Wildcat this week. The Niners' ability to shut down inside running lanes and eliminate cutback opportunities will be a huge key to the contest. If the 49ers can play disciplined defense, they should be able to limit the effectiveness of the Wildcat, forcing the Dolphins to go to the air. Miami's top receiver, Greg Camarillo (55 catches) has been placed on IR, leaving the team with one viable deep threat in explosive second year player, Ted Ginn, Jr. While his speed is frightening, he only has one TD on the season, and is still learning to play receiver at the pro level. Based on what the Dolphins have shown through the air of late, daring Chad Pennington to beat them with his arm could reap huge benefits. Look for the 49ers to clamp down on the run, tighten up coverage, and run with a 1-gap look up front to take advantage of the D-line's quickness and ability to disrupt running lanes between the tackles.
Taking the Offensive Show on the Road
Early indications are that Frank Gore will be unable to go this weekend...and if that is the case, Shaun Hill will need to do exactly what he's done over the past 6 weeks if the Niners expect to win on Sunday. Since he was made the starter, Hill has completed 63% of his passes, averaged 7.6 yards per pass attempt, and thrown for 10 TDs against 4 interceptions for a QB rating of 95.5. Looking very much like former 49ers starting QB Jeff Garcia, he has parlayed athleticism, quick feet, and in game smarts into a 5-2 record as a starter. With Gore out, look for Hill to throw early and often to the ageless Isaac Bruce, RB Michael Robinson (who can be very dangerous when he gets the ball in space) and impressive second year WR Jason Hill.
However, if the Niners expect to enjoy the same kind of success they had against the Jets last Sunday, another stout performance through the air won't be enough. The running game will have to be clicking on all cylinders, as well. Keeping the Dolphins' defense honest is crucial because of the NFL's current sack leader, linebacker Joey Porter. If offensive coordinator Mike Martz wants to keep Shaun Hill off of his back, and the 49ers offense on field, look for blocker extraordinaire Vernon Davis to help keep Porter in check on passing downs, and look for the 49ers to run the ball at least 25 times with a combination of dives, off-tackles, and traps from RBs DeShaun Foster and Michael Robinson (and Thomas Clayton, if he is activated from the practice squad).
If the Niners can score early, as they have in their recent victories over the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets, they should be able to balance the pass with the run, taking the teeth out of the Dolphin pass rush, create mismatches in the passing game with fleet tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker, and force Miami to play catch-up. If the Niners are as balanced in their play calling as they were against the Jets, they have an opportunity to take advantage of a talented but beatable Dolphins squad.
Matchups, Matchups, and more Matchups
Here are some key matchups to look for in Sunday's game:
Vernon Davis vs. Joey Porter
Should Porter draw coverage duty on the jackrabbit fast TE, Davis will win the battle nearly every time. In pass rushing situations; look for Davis to slide left to help LT Joe Staley account for the NFL sack leader. It will be imperative for Davis to keep his cool against Porter, who is notorious for being a big time trash-talker.
SF D-Line vs. MIA O-Line
Aubrayo Frankin played a very active role in disrupting offensive continuity in last week's 4-3, 1-gap look. He will have to do more of the same if the 49ers plan on shutting down the Miami rushing attack. Look for pass rushers Ray McDonald and Justin Smith to try taking advantage of rookie G Shawn Murphy, who will likely start in place of Justin Smiley, who has been placed on IR.
SF WRs vs. MIA DBs Will Allen, Andre Goodman, and Nate Jones
Look for the 49ers WRs to contribute in a big way against a smallish Miami secondary. While technically sound, Miami's corners won't be winning many jump ball competitions. This could prove advantageous to WRs Isaac Bruce, Bryant Johnson and Jason Hill, all of who enjoy an average 2" height advantage over the biggest of Miami's starting DBs.
Patrick Willis vs. Ronnie Brown/Ricky Williams
Willis is currently leading the NFC (second overall in the NFL) with 117 tackles, and has made his mark more than once on opposing runners. Look for Miami to try setting the tone early with some wildcat trickery mixed with some inside runs. This is where Willis' ability to play in space, hammer the run and play from sideline to sideline should pay dividends for the 49er defense. If Willis and the rest of the defense can shut down the run early, the Niners will have an opportunity to chew up the clock like they did last week against the Jets.
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