ReFo: Dolphins @ 49ers, Week 14
Ben Stockwell breaks down how the 49ers were able to overcome the Dolphins and move one step closer to retaining the NFC West.
ReFo: Dolphins @ 49ers, Week 14
Heading West is an entirely different prospect to heading East as a road team, but the outcome was still the same for the Miami Dolphins as they came up short in one of the longest road trips in the league. Though they clung on to the coat tails of San Francisco, there was always the impression that the 49ers could put the game away if necessary. They duly did so with the help of a Miami defense that capitulated on one option play where their alignment ensured that just a single blown assignment would send QB Colin Kaepernick to the end zone untouched.
Two of the premier pass rushers in the entire NFL got to show their skills in this game, as both recorded half a dozen pressures and got the better of their opposing tackles. One is firmly in the public mind as a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, while the other is on the outside looking in as his team continues to fall down the standings and out of the spotlight.
They weren’t the only stars to shine this week however, so here is our recap of some of the key performers that kept San Francisco out front in the NFC West.
Miami – Three Performances of Note
One of the real revelations for the Miami Dolphins this season has been the play of Reshad Jones who was our highest graded safety entering this week’s action. Both in coverage and in run support he has been excellent, and he has made solid use of his attempts rushing the passer as well. However, in recent weeks his tackling has become somewhat of a concern, and with three misses this week he has now missed tackles in five straight games, with nine combined in that stretch.
His performance has not dipped dramatically in that time (in fact he still grades significantly positively) but misses in the secondary lead to big plays and one poor play in isolation can overshadow an otherwise fine display. This game was only his second negatively graded game of the season so far, but he and the Dolphins will be keen to return to his early-season tackling form and security when he missed only two tackles in the Dolphins’ first eight games.
Feeling the Heat
The left side of the Miami Dolphins’ offensive line was always in for a tough day going up against Aldon Smith, and they duly suffered a disappointing outing. In fact, Jonathan Martin (-5.2) recorded his lowest single-game grade of the season in his first start at left tackle. Back on home turf (just a 40-minute drive from his collegiate home field at Stanford) Martin really struggled to deal with the physicality of Smith off the edge and surrendered almost all of his pressure to him, including both a sack and a hurry via bullrush.
Also in the firing line was left guard Richie Incognito (+1.0), though he largely held his own outside of one play against Smith late in the fourth quarter where he was isolated and simply outmatched. Aside from this (and one hit surrendered to Justin Smith late in the second quarter) Incognito had a strong performance highlighted by a crushing block delivered to NaVorro Bowman at the second level to help spring a 17-yard carry by Reggie Bush midway through the fourth quarter.
Inconsistent Line Play
After looking like one of the strongest units in the entire league early in the season, the Dolphins’ defensive line has descended into inconsistency during the second half of the year. While Randy Starks (+2.3) bounced out of his mini-slump with only his second positively graded performance since Week 8, his fellow defensive tackle Paul Soliai turned in his worst performance of the season and failed to get to grips with Jonathan Goodwin and Mike Iupati after a very early pressure in the first quarter.
Meanwhile on the outside, Cameron Wake posted multiple sacks for the second game in a row but couldn’t turn that into a game-turning performance as the 49ers were able to control the Dolphins’ defensive front on the ground. Wakes’ speed was too much for Anthony Davis to handle, but the 49ers’ powerful blocking was too much for all but Starks to consistently deal with up front and San Francisco were even able to ride up and consistently neutralize the Dolphins’ linebackers. This Miami front is one of the leagues’ best, but they failed to emphasize that point with a really strong display against the league’s best offensive line.
San Francisco – Three Performances of Note
Gore Leads the Corps
On a day that he passed 1,000 yards and tied the 49ers franchise record for career rushing touchdowns at 50, Frank Gore (+2.8) could hardly turn in a pedestrian performance, and he did not disappoint. The 49er set a season high with six combined forced missed tackles (three each in run and pass game) and collected close to half of his rushing yardage after contact as he run with real purpose and energy.
Further to this, we got a first tantalizing look at rookie running back LaMichael James (+1.2) who forced a pair of missed tackles as a runner, and had three offensive touches which collected 10 yards or more, with one more nullified by a holding penalty. With the power of Brandon Jacobs out of the lineup (now for the rest of the season) it’s fair to say that the 49ers’ backfield is still looking extremely fresh to capitalize on an offensive line that is doing a lot of good work to give them room to run.
Stating His Case
For those who look at only the stat line he doesn’t need to make much more of a case, but if Aldon Smith does indeed break the NFL’s single season sack record his résumé will be hard to ignore. After a relatively quiet start to the season (-0.5 grade and four sacks after six weeks) Smith has exploded into life in the second half of the season and he furthered his cause with another fine display (+4.3) against Miami.
Only a neutral zone infraction late in the fourth quarter really blotted his copybook. In addition to two sacks and four hurries, he also drew a holding penalty from Reggie Bush after he had blown to the inside of Jonathan Martin leaving Bush with little option but to grab Smith and give QB Ryan Tannehill a chance to escape. Often times young players will wear down late in seasons, but this is now the second year in a row at the start of his career where Smith has gotten stronger late in the year. With multiple sacks in five of his past six games Smith is timing his run perfectly, and he will get the chance to emphasize his place among the league’s elite defenders in 2012 in front of a national audience next Sunday in New England.
Ever Improving Efficiency
His career development may have been frustrating at times, but Michael Crabtree is finally starting to develop into a tremendous and rounded wide receiver. Completion percentage on passes targeted to Crabtree has grown every season, and in his fourth season more than 75% of passes aimed his way are being completed, in spite of a mid-season quarterback change. Crabtree hauled in 9 of 10 passes and forced a missed tackle as he collected a 20+ yard reception for the sixth time this season. Crabtree’s blend of efficiency and explosiveness after the catch is exactly what the 49ers thought they were getting four years ago. Short of a really big play over the top of an opposing defense, Crabtree is pretty much delivering on all fronts for the 49ers this season.
– First-round pick A.J. Jenkins recorded the first eight offensive snaps of his career in this game, and while he didn’t record a target he did show good effort to get a block downfield on Frank Gore’s 19-yard carry to open the fourth quarter.
– After recording only one tackle and missing another, Paul Soliai failed to record a defensive stop for the first time this season.
– For the third time this season Chris Culliver refused to allow a single completion into his coverage. The previous two times (Week 2 vs. Detroit, Week 4 at New York) he was targeted only once; this week he was targeted four times.
PFF Game Ball
His touches were limited, but his impact and energy on those 14 touches was exceptional and his six missed tackles on 14 touches is top quality. After this game Frank Gore topped the 1,000 yard mark for the second straight season, and the sixth time in the past seven years.
Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.