Former 49ers linebacker and KNBR analysis and color commentator Gary Plummer is back again this year with his Points of the Game, a weekly online column that previews the upcoming opponent. Check out some of his views on Sunday's road game against the Miami Dolphins.**
If you look at how the Miami Dolphins went from having the worst record in the NFL last season to being in a three-way tie for first place in the AFC East, it has a lot to do with their running game, the steady play of Chad Pennington at quarterback and the mindset enforced by Bill Parcells throughout the roster.
Pennington, who was signed after the New York Jets released him, has done a nice job leading the Dolphins. It's an over-used term, but "managing the game" is exactly what Pennington's doing.
Dan Henning is the Dolphins offensive coordinator, and he's always been a smash-mouth, play-action pass type of guy. Their running game has their two guys in Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams combining for 1,300 yards right now, averaging 4.2 yards per carry. The two backs have also combined for 13 rushing touchdowns. Anytime you have a great running game like Miami possesses, it's going to take a ton of pressure off of the quarterback.
The Dolphins offensive line has also done a good job protecting Pennington. Tackle Jake Long, the rookie, is their best player. Other than that, they're a bunch of guys who aren't particularly talented, but they work well together and they're kind of nasty. Still, the line is the weak-link to their ball club. I think it was a big free agent acquisition for them to get Justin Smiley. As 49ers fans know, Smiley was good, but he wasn't great. So, there's going to be quite a drop-off from Smiley, who is out for the season with a broken leg, to Andy Alleman. To me, the interesting part is the synergy. When you look at them, they really shouldn't be playing that well individually, but the sum is greater than the total of the parts.
Pennington is very good, much like Shaun Hill is at spreading the ball around. There are seven Miami receivers who have more than 20 catches. The other thing that Pennington is doing is not turning the ball over. He has thrown a league-low six interceptions, helping the Dolphins to a league best plus 12 turnover ratio. Ball security is a huge Bill Parcells sticking point, and let's face it, Parcells is running that franchise right now.
One thing that has hurt Pennington is not having Greg Camarillo, who is out for the season with a torn ACL. He was their leading receiver, so that is going to affect them because he's a bigger target and seemed to be the go-to guy for Pennington. Now they have to rely on a smaller, faster receiver in Ted Ginn, but he and the rest of the Miami receivers have all been making plays for Pennington. Pennington is a guy who has been around a long time, he's smart, he knows the system and he's just trying to get the ball in his receivers' hands and let them do the work.
But again, the emphasis for this team is obviously the running game. Even though they're 13th in the NFL in rushing and 9th in passing, Brown and Williams make that offense work. Brown has excellent feet, but he's also a powerful back who's a good finisher as well. Williams runs with power. He's explosive and he finishes. He's a straight-line guy, who is not going to dance around. When he's going to look for a hole, he makes one cut and then goes.
The Dolphins running backs present even more of a challenge once they line up in their "Wildcat" formation.
Brown is the quarterback in the formation, and he does it well. They've had a lot of success with the Wildcat, and they've used it more than any other team in the NFL. But in recent weeks, teams have done good job preparing for the Wildcat, and the Dolphins aren't having as much success.
It's not that the Wildcat formation is that difficult to handle, but the Dolphins were catching teams off-guard early on. There isn't a single pro who hasn't seen the option in college, but most haven't seen it at the league level. There's enough tape of what the Dolphins have done for defensive coordinator Greg Manusky and company to get guys assigned to handle Brown and Williams when they line up in it.
As we've all seen lately, the guys truly believe in Mike Singletary. And I think they are being held accountable for their actions. In the past two games we've seen a defense that has not allowed that many points against two AFC East teams. This is the defense we kept hearing about from Mike Nolan, Scot McCloughan and Manusky going all the way back to training camp. This is the defense 49ers fans expected.
Why is that happening now?
I think guys are being more aggressive. The players are flying around to the football and you're seeing more movement upfront. The 49ers are playing much more of the 3-4 than they were earlier in the season. There are more stunts and slants. Guys are getting into gaps. That wasn't what the scheme was earlier in the year, but it has become the scheme now, and it's become effective.
The 49ers are also coming together on offense. Guys have had three-quarters of a season in Mike Martz's offense. As he said all along, it was going to take a while for guys to be able to integrate themselves into this offense and I think that is what has happened. Having a different quarterback back there in Hill, who like Pennington, knows how to manage the game and be smart with the football has also made the 49ers more efficient.
Hill will have to be aware of Dolphins outside linebacker Joey Porter. He has 16.5 sacks already this year, and to me, that is just amazing. He's got fantastic get-off and acceleration, and that's where it starts. He's not a huge guy, but he uses his leverage very well, and he's got great hands.
Porter is always on the weak side and he'll use his speed coming off the edge when being blocked by an offensive tackle. It's like a dog trying to chase a cat. It's very difficult for that dog to even be able to touch the cat because of that quickness. The Dolphins are smart to line him up where they do because if he were on the side of the tight end, he'd be one man further away from the quarterback. Plus, you tend to get more double teams from the tight end and offensive tackle if you are on the other side, so they've helped him out by shortening the corner for him on that weak side.
A great way to combat that is to motion Vernon Davis to his side because that's a matchup I'd take any day. But, you can't shift him there, because that will give Miami enough time to run Porter to the other side.
The 49ers could also use a running back in the backfield to help chip block on him. You can also roll the pocket away from him or run screens or bootlegs to his side. You can't do just one thing against him and expect it to be successful all game long. You have to change things up.
The 49ers can limit Porter's sack total, with a steady diet of the running game. The Dolphins run a 3-4 defense much like the 49ers. It's what Parcells has always believed in and preached. They have some good defensive linemen in Kendall Langford and Jason Ferguson, and it's very similar to what the 49ers saw last week from the Jets. And we all saw how successful the 49ers were against that front.
With Frank Gore being a game time decision, the workload is likely going to be spread around. So it's important for guys like DeShaun Foster and Michael Robinson to keep the production going.
I think one of the reasons that Foster has been hesitant and hasn't hit the holes as hard when he's played is because it takes time for your vision to open up. He hasn't gotten a steady number or reps and I don't think he's been able to develop the confidence he needs. But getting to practice all week with the starters is going to give him a better feel for the offense and allow him to be more effective.
No matter who carries the ball, I think the 49ers offensive line is playing more aggressive these days, and when that is the case, it takes away from the pass rush that the defense can generate.
And that's an important part of this game. I've mentioned some of the ways the 49ers can use motion to limit Porter's production, but it really falls on the offensive line. The Dolphins have 32 sacks, but if you look at that, more than half of them come from Porter – that has to be your focus. Get Porter blocked first and foremost.
As for the rest of their defense, Miami's two starting corners are pretty good, but once they get into their nickel and dime packages, there's a pretty big drop off. It would benefit the 49ers to run more 3-wide receiver sets and have those third and fourth wide receivers make plays because that's something the Dolphins have struggled with this season. After their first two corners, they're just average in the secondary. They play very well in run support, but depth has been their problem.
With Hill hitting ten different receivers last week, it says to an opponent that there's no relaxing in the secondary. It puts a lot of pressure on those guys, and with Isaac Bruce playing as well as he's been, he's going to certainly loosen up that secondary.
The 49ers are playing their third consecutive opponent from the AFC East and so far they are having a big say in shaping the playoff picture. If the 49ers beat Miami this week, New England really should have to send a draft pick to the 49ers.