As the Dolphins move closer toward an improbable AFC East title, the national buzz is already starting to swirl about a potentially critical game against the Jets in the regular season’s final week. But should Miami first fall to the 49ers and the Chiefs, the magnitude of that finale would be put into jeopardy. So first, before the Dolphins can start getting ready for their divisional Super Bowl at the Meadowlands, they’ll need to put a critical focus on the same 49ers team that defeated that Jets team just this past week.
SAN FRAN SPOILERS: The 49ers aren’t playing for a postseason appearance at this point, since even three wins to wrap up the season wouldn’t get them there. Instead, they still have the chance to shake things up in a division far from their home. Over the past two weeks, the 49ers have defeated the Bills and the Jets by a combine score of 34-17. They’ll have the chance to add one more AFC East team to their list Sunday.
PORTER POWER: After a short hiatus from his quarterback-terrorizing ways, Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter rebounded from a few slow weeks with a two-sack performance against the Bills last week. The total moved him back to the top of NFL for single-season sack leaders with 16.5. He is now two sacks shy of tying the Dolphins’ single-season record, currently held by former Dolphins Jason Taylor and Bill Stanfill. His success Sunday — whether he reaches that mark or not — will be critical to Miami’s overall fate, since the 49ers generally thrive with their passing game.
1. Keep on trucking: A prolific passing team early in the season, the 49ers have gone to the ground more as winter approaches. Mike Martz might be tempted to return to his passing attack in sunny South Florida on Sunday, but that would be a mistake. The ball-control approach has been beneficial to both the offense and the defense, which didn’t spend much time on the field Sunday and, not coincidentally, had its best performance of the year.
2.Tuck it away: The 49ers committed five fumbles Sunday against the Jets and were lucky to have only lost one of them. DeShaun Foster, who had a reputation as a fumbler in Carolina, was responsible for one of those fumbles. Foster has poor habits when it comes to securing the ball, something he must remedy with Frank Gore dealing with a sprained ankle.
3. Nothing deep: Terrell Owens taught the 49ers a valuable lesson in Week 12 — don’t let the receivers get behind you. Since then, the 49ers have kept the big plays to a minimum, and Sunday against New York, they limited Jerricho Cotchery and Laveranues Coles to one catch apiece. It’s a lesson they will have in mind against speedy Ted Ginn, Jr.
1. Get pressure: Aside from Joey Porter’s success, which shouldn’t be understated, the rest of the team’s defense has struggled to consistently put enough sack-worthy pressure on opposing quarterbacks. This week, that needs to change. Although quarterback Shaun Hill has been playing better than J.T. O’Sullivan did during his first eight starts, the team has still been vulnerable to sacks this season, giving up 11 sacks in the past four games. If Miami can’t at least keep up with that trend (or better yet, surpass it), Hill has proven that his efficiency will ultimately cause the Dolphins plenty of problems.
2. Limit Gore/Foster: As a result of a left ankle sprain suffered by Frank Gore in the second half of the game against the Jets, San Francisco might need to rely on DeShaun Foster to carry the bulk of the load on the ground Sunday. It’s not as if Gore has played spectacular in the past three weeks, but he has still proven this season to have the goods to occasionally rip off a serious game every once in a while (he has three games with over 100 yards). With a hampered ankle, though, Miami must target this vulnerability and keep Foster from finding the same groove that made him a productive back in Carolina for the past three seasons.
3. Don’t play down: The Dolphins’ most recent win against the Bills might have also been their most complete game of the season. They were successful on offense, defense and special teams, and they generally looked better than Buffalo from start to finish. That’s the type of win coach Tony Sparano has been waiting for, because the Dolphins, more often than not, have struggled with team they were “supposed” to beat. They defeated Seattle by two points, Oakland by two points and St. Louis by four points. So although San Francisco has been vulnerable for much of the season, the Dolphins can’t allow that to cause this Miami team to revert back to those bottom-dwelling tendencies.
Scoring prediction: 49ers 10 – Dolphins 23
Just when it looked like Mike Martz finally was falling into a rhythm with Frank Gore and the running game, Gore twists his ankle. The tailback’s status for Sunday’s game in his hometown of Miami is up in the air. His back up, DeShaun Foster, is not as strong between the tackles as Gore, and he showed an alarming carelessness with the football, which is something the Dolphins — first in the league in turnover margin — are sure to pick up on film. Foster, however, is a natural pass catcher out of the backfield, and it will be interesting to see if Martz takes advantage. Coming into the season, it was believed that Gore, like former Martz pupil, Marshall Faulk, would be a frequent target in the passing game. Gore, however, has the same number of catches he had at this point last season and heï¿½s lagging behind his pace from 2006.
The concerns about Shaun Hill’s arm strength have not come to fruition. Hill hasnï¿½t tried any 40-yard bombs — his weakness — but he’s been accurate on short and intermediate throws, mainly because he is letting go of the ball well before the receiver makes his break. Like J.T. O’Sullivan earlier this year, Hillï¿½s favorite target has become Isaac Bruce, who has 19 catches in the last three games. Jason Hill also is becoming a frequent target, and the second-year player’s quickness after the catch has been so impressive that Arnaz Battle, just returning from a foot injury, may no longer be the teamï¿½s No. 3 receiver.
Gore did an excellent job of picking up the blitz against the Jets, and it remains to be seen how Foster handles that role. Another player who effectively snuffed out the New York pass rush was tight end Vernon Davis, who often is asked to stay back in blocking situations. Davis likely will be tapped to help out — or perhaps block outright — linebacker Joey Porter, who leads the league with 16 1/2 sacks. That’s an intriguing match up because of the physical skills involved. But it’s also a potentially explosive match up of personalities. Porter has a reputation as one of the best trash talkers in the league while the scouting report on notoriously hot-headed Davis is that opposing players can get under his skin. Keeping his cool — as he did against the Jets — will be one of Davisï¿½ challenges on Sunday.
IN THE RED ZONE:
Hill found Bryant Johnson for a short touchdown against the Jets, and the receiverï¿½s size is an asset when the team is close to the goal line. The team likes to use a play in which Johnson starts inside, plants his foot, and then outraces the defensive back for the corner of the end zone. The 49ers also should get Josh Morgan, another strong receiver, back from a groin injury this week. If Gore is unable to play, it will be interesting to see whether the team uses Foster or fullback/tailback Michael Robinson in short-yardage situations.
Whether or not Miami’s running game will be successful is likely to be dictated largely by the production of the Dolphins’ interior offensive line. Guard Andy Alleman was solid in his first start replacing injured Justin Smiley, but Alleman, guard Ikechuku Ndukwe and center Samson Satele are all pretty young. Nonetheless, if those three players can disrupt nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin and rookie defensive end Kentwan Balmer, it likely will also limit the ability of star linebacker Patrick Willis. San Francisco’s goal is often to find Willis as much space as possible to roam and make plays. Given the Dolphins’ recent ability to find balance from Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, Willis will already have a tough task stopping the run. Unless he gets helps from Franklin and Blamer ï¿½ who played well in the past two weeks despite struggling much of the season ï¿½ Willis will have a tough time against this Dolphins running duo.
It doesn’t seem to even matter who plays wide receiver for the Dolphins anymore ï¿½ quarterback Chad Pennington still finds a way to make them look good. Undrafted rookie Davone Bess is the latest beneficiary of Pennington’s efficiency, having been the team’s leading receiver over the past two games. That success, though, could cause the 49ers to actually put some defensive emphasis on Bess. Still, that might be tough for the 49ers to do, especially since Nate Clements missed the most recent win with a broken thumb. If Clements can’t go, it could require double coverage of Ted Ginn Jr., once again freeing up Bess for a productive day.
The 49ers aren’t a team that likes to blitz a lot, which might be a smart strategy against the Dolphins given quarterback Chad Pennington’s fast decision-making skills. Pennington has not been overly vulnerable to the blitz lately, mostly because he realizes the importance of picking apart defenses with shorter passes. If St. Louis does blitz, it likely will come from the defensive backfield. The best pass rushers on the team are Justin Smith and Parys Haralson, but both have not yielded much effectiveness this season. As a result, expect the Dolphins to install an offensive gameplan that takes some chances deep, since Pennington might have more time than even he’s used to.
IN THE RED ZONE:
Given the talented corps of linebackers on the 49ers, the Dolphins could have trouble utilizing their tight ends in the red zone. Expect, instead, the same methodical approach out of a base offense from Miami inside the 20-yard line. The Dolphins are still generally successful in this area of the field, scoring 88.9 percent of the time with 22 touchdowns on 36 drives into the redzone. Most impressively, the team has limited their turnovers in this area to just one interception all season, which has generally been result of Chad Pennington’s continued efficiency.
Source: Sporting News