The Miami Dolphins lost to the San Francisco 49ers 33-17 Sunday at Levi’s Stadium; here are some things we learned:
Dolphins struggle to run the ball — again
Acquiring running back Jeff Wilson Jr. has provided a boost to the Dolphins running game, but not as much as it needs yet. Wilson and Raheem Mostert, both ex-49ers, combined for 33 yards rushing on eight carries. The Dolphins, who entered the game 28th in the league in rushing at 94.8 yards per game, rushed for 13 yards on five carries in the first half. The short passing game became the de facto run game. The Dolphins, who rushed for 66 yards last week against Houston, need to find a run game, especially with left tackle Terron Armstead (pectoral) ailing and pass protection suffering.
Third downs were problematic
Midway through the third quarter the 49ers were 8 of 19 on third downs while the Dolphins were 0 of 7. The Dolphins were 0 of 5 on third downs in the first half. San Francisco was 4 of 8 in the first half. The Dolphins entered the game 12th in the league on third downs, converting 40.8% of the time. The 49ers were fifth at 45.7%.
Dolphins couldn’t stop Christian McCaffrey
San Francisco running back Christian McCaffrey was the answer to the question, “Which 49ers offensive player will cause the most headaches for the Dolphins?” McCaffrey totaled 146 yards from scrimmage (66 rushing, 80 receiving). He had 102 yards from scrimmage at halftime between 70 yards receiving and 32 yards rushing. Among the candidates for which offensive player would do the most damage to the Dolphins were quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, wide receiver Deebo Samuel and tight end George Kittle.
Tua is now 14-3 in his last 17 starts
Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa , with Sunday’s loss, is now 14-3 in his last 17 starts, a span that covers the time since he returned from a finger injury on his throwing hand on Nov. 21, 2021, against the New York Jets. That .875 winning percentage since that date was tied for the best among starting NFL quarterbacks (minimum five starts) along with Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts. Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes (.833, 15-3 record) is third and Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins (.722, 13-5) is fourth. Tagovailoa (18 of 33, 295, two touchdowns, two interceptions, 79.7 passer rating) started the 49ers game well, then hit a lull before heating up again late. Tagovailoa began play Sunday with a 21-9 record, and a .700 winning percentage, which ranked third among quarterbacks with at least 20 starts since 2020. Tagovailoa is now 15-2 in the last 17 games he has played and finished healthy.
Tua’s club-record passes without an INT vs. the NFL record
Tagovailoa saw his club-record streak of passes without an interception snapped at 193, when the 49ers’ Jimmie Ward acrobatically snared a third-quarter toss. How does that incredible run compare with the most lengthy in NFL history? The longest streak in a season without an interception in NFL history is held by the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, who had a 402-pass stretch without a pickoff in 2018. Unbelievably, Tagovailoa threw an interception on his next pass, too.
Tyreek Hill still in race for Dolphins record
Wide receiver Tyreek Hill’s 146 receiving yards against Houston put him at 1,379 for the season, gaining ground Minnesota Vikings’ Justin Jefferson atop the NFL leaderboard. He needs only 11 to set the Dolphins record (1,389 by Mark Clayton in 1984) and 586 to break the NFL record (1,964 by Calvin Johnson in 2012). To break Johnson’s mark, he would require 117.2 yards a game, and 146.5 to break it on a 16-game frame.
Tua’s long-distance passes, Part I
Tagovailoa didn’t have his best game against San Francisco, but he had two long touchdown receptions that kept the Dolphins afloat. The first was a 75-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Trent Sherfield on the first play from scrimmage and the second was a 45-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Tyreek Hill. The 75-yarder is the Dolphins’ longest touchdown reception of the season, and the 45-yarder is tied for seventh.
Terron Armstead’s really weird streak continued
For the seventh season in a row, standout left tackle Terron Armstead had to sit out his team’s 12th game of the season. The streak started in 2016 while with New Orleans. Interestingly, in each year of the streak, Armstead has come back to make at least one more start, and he is expected to return this season as well.
Christian Wilkins is still ballin’
Dolphins defensive tackle Christian Wilkins had another strong game Sunday, totaling a team-best 12 tackles while standing strong against the run and applying good pressure against the pass. Wilkins had nine tackles and a forced fumble in the first half. Wilkins, ranked 18th among interior defensive linemen by Pro Football Focus, has been a beast all season.
Dolphins WRs other than Hill and Waddle can be dangerous
Dolphins wide receiver Trent Sherfield had a 75-yard catch-and-run touchdown reception, the team’s longest play of the season, on the game’s first play from scrimmage, showing other wide receivers aside from Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle can make big plays. Before the Sherfield play, Hill and Waddle had the Dolphins’ 13 longest pass plays, starting with Hill’s 64-yard reception at Cincinnati from quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The longest previous touchdown reception was a 60-yard from Tagovailoa to Hill at Baltimore. The previous longest pass play from a receiver other than Waddle and Hill was a 32-yard reception by Sherfield from Tagovailoa against Pittsburgh.
Oh, no! Another beautiful day for football
Those who worry about the Dolphins performing well in inclement playoff weather (cold, rain, snow, etc…) take note. You might have a legitimate concern if the Dolphins earn a postseason berth. Sunday turned out to be an absolutely gorgeous, sunny day at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., with no rain in sight, extending the Dolphins’ streak of playing in beautiful weather this season. Perhaps that becomes a factor in the playoffs, perhaps not. Forecasts a few days before Sunday’s Dolphins-49ers game called for as much as an 80% chance of rain. The only Dolphins games that had a realistic possibility of bad weather were Chicago, where high winds shut down both O’Hare and Midway airports for a few hours the day before the game, and San Francisco, where the expected rain never came. The Dolphins’ best remaining chances for bad weather are at Buffalo on Dec. 17 or 18, and at New England on New Year’s Day. The other remaining road game is next Sunday night at the Los Angeles Chargers. Previous road games at Baltimore, Cincinnati, the New York Jets and Detroit (game played in a dome) featured great weather.
Jaelan Phillips left his tepid September behind
On Sept. 25, after the 21-19 Dolphins win over the visiting Buffalo Bills, we wrote this:
“The former University of Miami standout has played six games in September as a pro. In those approximately 220 defensive snaps, Phillips has logged no sacks and only one knockdown of the quarterback and one hurry. Dolphins Hall of Fame defensive end/linebacker Jason Taylor, though, has shown the value of patience for a thinner, angular edge pass-rusher. Taylor began his career with only 17 sacks in his first 46 games. And, none of those sacks forced a fumble, a play he became known for, as, over the next 125 games, he terrorized offenses for 100 sacks and 34 fumbles forced, scoring six touchdowns and three safeties. Still, it is an early truth that the season’s first month as been dry for Phillips.”
Phillips has since become a Pro Bowl-caliber terror. Starting four days later in Cincinnati and over the eight games after the Buffalo victory, the 18th pick in the 2021 draft has grabbed all of his 4.5 sacks in 2022 and, according to Pro Football Focus, 25 of his 32 hurries, all seven of his quarterback hits and seven games with a PFF grade of over 70. By comparison, in 2021, Phillips had 8.5 sacks (again, all of them after Week 3) and PFF gave him a grade over 70 in only four of his 17 games with 22 hurries and seven QBHs the entire season.
Pass protection without Armstead is scary
In the 8 1/2 games Terron Armstead has played for the Dolphins, the pass protection has been near pristine. Entering the Texans contest, the Dolphins had allowed only 11.5 pressures and 1.25 sacks a game in the eight games in which the high-priced import from New Orleans had played. Those numbers exploded in the Jets and Vikings games with 33.0 pressures and 4.5 sacks a game. Lest one believe that perhaps New York and Minnesota were just better pass-rushers than the other eight teams, that same sort of dichotomy played out in microcosm within the tilt against Houston. In 28 dropbacks last Sunday with Armstead, Tagovailoa was pressured four times, with zero sacks. In the 11 Tagovailoa dropbacks after Armstead left, he was sacked four times — and it would have been five, but a player grabbed the Dolphins quarterback’s facemask. Then, the 49ers annihilated the Dolphins’ Armstead-less pass protection yet again.
Waddle’s depth of target has more than doubled (but his drops have jumped)
Second-year receiver Jaylen Waddle has juiced his average depth of reception from his 5.5 yards of rookie year to more than double that this season (to a ninth-best-in-the-NFL 11.4 yards per catch entering the 49ers game). On the flip side, he has also seen his dropped passes take a leap up. Among his 112 catchable passes last year (receptions plus drops), Waddle mishandled eight for a 7.1% dropped-pass rate. This season, entering the 49ers matchup, he had dropped seven of 63 catchable balls for an 11.1% rate, a 56.3% uppage.
Tagovailoa struggling against winning teams
The matchup in Santa Clara against the 8-4 49ers represented the 13th start for Tua Tagovailoa against a team that finished with a winning record in 2020 and 2021, or currently owns one now. With the 18-of-33, 295-yard performance with two touchdown passes and two interceptions for Tagovailoa, it leaves the Dolphins passer a career at 240 for 399 for 2,762 yards, 16 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions for a passer rating of a 80.8 against teams above .500. By comparison, Tagovailoa’s career passer rating against teams with losing records is 106.0.
Speaking of winning teams…
The Dolphins put one winning team in their challenging final six games behind them on Sunday, but the remaining schedule is almost just as arduous. The next five opponents have a winning percentage of .541: At Los Angeles Chargers (6-6), At Buffalo Bills (9-3), Green Bay (5-8), At New England Patriots (6-6) and New York Jets (7-5)
Tua’s long-distance passes, part II
Through the end of October, the Dolphins’ offense had ripped off eight plays of at least 40 yards (all passing plays). In the three ensuing games, the Dolphins hadn’t had such a play. Then, they got two in Santa Clara.
On deck: At Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, 8:20 p.m.
The Dolphins stay in California and will battle Justin Herbert, whom they passed on in favor of Tua Tagovailoa with the fifth selection in the 2020 draft, and a Chargers team that, despite having been wracked with injuries, has remained in the playoff race.