The 49ers look to continue to impact the AFC East division with their third straight win of the year when they battle the Miami Dolphins this Sunday.
Unlike a year ago when they finished 1-15, the Dolphins are no slouches. Miami continued to distance themselves from last year's strife with a 16-3 road win over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, marking their sixth win in seven games. The victory, combined with the 49ers win over New York, moved them into a three-way tie for first place with the Patriots and the Jets.
Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington was efficient in the win, completing 23 of 29 passes for 181 yards and a touchdown pass. Although it wasn't a huge passing day for Pennington, his numbers were good enough for him to surpass the 3,000 yard passing mark on the year.
Pennington isn't flashy, but he's consistent and he doesn't make many mistakes. He's thrown 12 TD's in comparison to 6 interceptions, and leads a Miami offense that has turned the ball over ten times on the year for a league low. The Dolphins plus 12 takeaway/giveaway ratio is also the best in the league.
Pennington lost his top target – receiver Greg Camarillo – to injury a few weeks ago. In his absence, Ted Ginn Jr, a second-year receiver out of Ohio State has moved into the starring role at wideout. Ginn has 48 catches for a team leading 669 receiving yards, including a long reception of 64 yards on the year.
Rookie Davone Bess, an undrafted free agent out of Hawaii, has also seen an increased role as of late, lining up out wide and in the slot. Bess is small, but very quick, and has drawn some comparisons to the Dolphins former player, Wes Welker, who has since gone on to find fame in New England. He is third on the team in catches with 39 receptions for 433 yards and a touchdown.
Ernest Wilford and Brandon London have shared time as the team's third wideout in recent weeks, and have limited production up to this point with a combined 5 catches for 45.
Pennington also looks for his tight ends in the passing game, having thrown the most passes to backup David Martin, who has 27 grabs for 365 yards. Starting tight end Anthony Fasano is close behind Martin with one less catch for 358 yards. He also has four touchdowns.
But the strength of the Dolphins offense lies in their two running backs, Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. Miami started a new trend this year by using the Wildcat formation, putting Brown back at quarterback and keeping defenses guessing.
Brown has taken 54 more carries than Williams, and leads the team with 760 yards and ten touchdowns with a 4.1 average yard per carry. Williams has 552 yards on 131 carries for a 4.2 yard average and only three touchdowns.
The offensive line was an area that the Dolphins addressed in the off-season, signing former 49ers guard Justin Smiley about a half hour into free agency, and then drafting tackle Jake Long with the first overall pick in the Draft. Smiley was lost two weeks ago when he broke his leg in the Dolphins win over St. Louis, and has been replaced at second-year left guard Andy Alleman.
Last year's second round pick, center Samson Satele has grown in his second season as a starter, while right guard Ikechuku Ndukwe, a former undrafted free agent, is still learning the ropes after moving into his first year as a starter back in week two. Vernon Carey, a former first round pick in 2004, switched from left to right tackle this season where he's started all 13 games.
During Sunday's win over the Bills, Brandon Frye worked in at both guard positions for Alleman and Ndukwe as the Dolphins search for their best combination on the line.
The Miami 3-4 defense looks to have already hit their stride in recent weeks.
The Dolphins held the Bills to only 163 yards of total offense, and for the second straight week, prevented their opponent from scoring a touchdown.
After a fairly quiet year in '07 with 5.5 sacks, the Dolphins outspoken outside linebacker, Joey Porter, has been the biggest difference maker for the Miami defense this year, leading the NFL with 16.5 sacks.
Veteran defensive end Vonnie Holliday is the team's next best rusher in terms of production with 3.5, but Porter is really their only true pass rusher, as the combined sack total for the rest of the unit is one less sack than Porter's total.
But what the front seven lacks in pass rush, they more than make up for it against the run as they are very stout run defenders.
Nose tackle Jason Ferguson is the best of the d-line, and is backed up by a solid player in Randy Starks, who joined the Dolphins this off-season from Miami. Typically Kendall Langford starts up front with Holliday and Ferguson, but Starks actually started last week as the Dolphins began the game in a 4-3 front.
Former defensive end Matt Roth starts opposite Porter, and has three sacks, but he does struggle somewhat dropping in coverage.
The Dolphins are solid at inside linebacker with a pair of tough players in Channing Crowder and Akin Ayodele. Crowder plays every down and is second on the team with 95 tackles (according to the Dolphins coaching stats).
The 49ers offensive line should also ready for linebacker Charlie Anderson, who had a productive day rushing the passer last week against Buffalo. Lining up opposite Porter, Anderson twice got to Losman to force fumbles.
The Dolphins are solid in the backend at corner with Will Allen and Andre Goodman. Allen helped keep up the two-week touchdown shutout by intercepting a JP Losman fade throw in the end zone, marking his third pick of the year. Goodman notched his second interception of the year the week before in St. Louis, in a game that would end with three total interceptions for the defense with Ayodele and former corner turned safety Renaldo Hill also getting into the mix. Hill starts alongside Yeremiah Bell, who is more of a box safety who leads the defense in total tackles with 97.
Nathan Jones had been the team's starting nickel corner until the Bills game when Jason Allen got the nod. The 49ers should prepare for either player, as well as safety Tyrone Culver, who plays primarily in the dime package.
The Dolphins feature a rookie kicker in Dan Carpenter, out of Montana. Carpenter has missed two field goals from the 40-49 range on the year, and had a third blocked by the Bills in their first meeting.
Brandon Fields, a seventh-round draft pick in 2007, is in his second year handling punting responsibilities for the Dolphins.
Bess and Ginn have contributed at both punt and kickoff returns, although Bess handles the majority of the punt returns and has a long 25, with Ginn taking the bulk of the kickoff returns where he holds a long of 41.
While neither returner has cracked one open, the Dolphins coverage teams has allowed some big returns on the year. Houston hit them with a 70-yard punt return for a touchdown, while the Raiders scored on a 93-yard punt return. The Broncos almost got a score as well, on a 95-yard kickoff return.
The 49ers don't particularly how they get into the end zone this Sunday, as long as they get there.
Tune in to Fox on Sunday to see what happens in this third straight AFC East matchup. Kickoff is at 10AM PST.