The Miami Dolphins began their difficult stretch of the schedule, which lived up to its billing in a 33-17 loss at San Francisco.
It’s important not to overreact. It’s only one game, and the Dolphins (8-4) remain in good position to secure their first playoff berth since 2016.
But there’s no denying the Dolphins’ five-game winning streak ended in rude fashion as the 49ers’ made quarterback Tua Tagovailoa uncomfortable, took advantage of left tackle Terron Armstead’s absence, and generally did what they needed to do offensively.
The Dolphins’ offense, adept at big plays such as Trent Sherfield’s 75-yard touchdown and Tyreek Hill’s 45-yard score on Sunday, struggled for much of the day. The Dolphins only ran 45 plays. Teams usually like to run between 60 and 70. The 49ers ran 79 plays.
The Dolphins rushed for just 33 yards on eight carries, and have only 99 yards rushing in their last two games. Plus, they were 0 of 7 on third downs against San Francisco.
Defensively, the 49ers rushed for 121 yards and rookie quarterback Brock Purdy, the very last pick of the draft out of Iowa State, was able to connect when necessary with well-thrown passes into tight windows.
The Dolphins wanted the challenges of December football, and that’s exactly what they got.
Passing game: C
This is a tough one to grade. Obviously the long touchdowns were good to see. Hill (nine receptions, 146 yards, one touchdown) and Sherfield (one reception, 75 yards, one touchdown) provided the shot in the arm the passing game needed. However, the sack-fumble against Tagovailoa and the interceptions, which came on back-to-back third quarter passes, were rough. Tagovailoa absorbed three sacks and was inaccurate for much of the day. Pass protection, while good at times, was spotty, at best. Not having Armstead (pectoral) and right tackle Austin Jackson (ankle) proved costly, although Jackson hasn’t been there for most of the season. Still, running back Jeff Wilson dropped a pass, and the communication and execution up front on twists and stunts was choppy. Not a good performance. In fact, those two long passes were about the only bright spots.
Running game: F
Simply put, the ground game was a failure. The totals — eight carries, 33 yards — say it all. Wilson had one carry for three yards. Raheem Mostert had seven carries for 30 yards. Both said they, individually, need to do better. They’re right. The Dolphins can’t be a one-dimensional offense, especially without Armstead, who stabilizes the entire operation up front. Without the run game, the Dolphins can’t throw on play action and the offense is predictable, which happened against the 49ers. San Francisco entered the game with the league’s best run defense, and now you know why. The Dolphins must find a way to run the ball.
Defending the pass: C+
Purdy (25 of 37, 210 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, 88.8 passer rating) sliced and diced the secondary when necessary, but the Dolphins’ pass rush had four sacks and 10 quarterback hits. Linebackers Melvin Ingram and Bradley Chubb each had one sack, and linebackers Jaelan Phillips, Jerome Baker, Andrew Van Ginkel and defensive lineman Zach Sieler each had a half sack. And cornerback Xavien Howard had an interception. Regardless, the 49ers got 15 of their 24 first downs via the pass. Four players had at least 30 yards receiving — running back Christian McCaffrey (80 yards, one touchdown) and wide receivers Deebo Samuel (58 yards), Brandon Aiyuk (46 yards), Jauan Jennings (34 yards). The Dolphins weren’t bad in this area, they just weren’t as good as they needed to be.
Defending the run: D
This wasn’t a dominant performance by the 49ers. But they used their 34 carries for 134 yards to control the clock and double up the time of possession, 40:34 to 19:26. McCaffrey (17 carries, 66 yards, 3.9 yards per carry) wasn’t great, but he was effective. Baker and defensive lineman Christian Wilkins (12 tackles apiece) did what they could. However, the 49ers were determined to run the ball. They had 16 carries for 69 yards in the first half, and 18 carries for 52 yards in the second half.
Special teams: C+
Kicker Jason Sanders (one field goal, two extra points) and punter Thomas Morstead (four punts, 51.5 yards per punt) were good. But the coverage teams were only so-so. The 49ers averaged 17 yards per return on two punt returns and 25 yards per return on two kickoff returns. Mostert had one kickoff return for 25 yards.
The Dolphins didn’t get outcoached. Mike McDaniel didn’t do anything uncharacteristic in his visit to his old stomping grounds and in a matchup against his friend and mentor, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan. The Dolphins had eight penalties for 68 yards, and that’s a reflection on coaching. And they had no answer for Purdy, a seventh-round pick. That shouldn’t be the case. They ought to be able to rattle the rookie, move him off his spot, confuse him. That didn’t happen. And the coaching staff needs to find a way to run the ball effectively.
Stock up: Defensive lineman Christian Wilkins
On a defense with Howard, Chubb, Phillips and many others, Wilkins, a team captain, often gets overlooked. But make no mistake, he’s one of the backbones of the defense and he’s having an outstanding season. Against the 49ers he had 12 tackles and a forced fumble, and you saw some of his trademark high-motor, always-hustling plays. Wilkins doesn’t get a lot of sacks or do a lot of high-profile work, but he’s a key player and he showed it against the 49ers.
Stock down: Offense
The Dolphins only scored two touchdowns — both on long passes. They need to consistently put fear into a defense, and the 49ers weren’t scared of this offense at all, even after that 75-yard touchdown pass on the first play. The Dolphins miss Armstead, but they need to find a workaround. Tagovailoa was inaccurate and the run game was non-existent. The Dolphins need to find a way to consistently score touchdowns. They did it against the soft part of the schedule, but must find a way when it matters most.