By Abraham Gutierrez
After a successful two-week stretch out west, the (6-4) Miami Dolphins return home triumphant as they look to continue their playoff push by hosting the (1-9) San Francisco 49ers in Week 12. However, based on the landscape of the AFC Conference Wild Card standings, the Dolphins have plenty of work before clinching a postseason berth.
Do not underestimate San Francisco
First order of business for the surging Fins is to avoid becoming complacent with what they’ve accomplished thus far, otherwise they may find themselves letdown against Chip Kelly’s bunch. While Miami has won five straight, San Francisco hasn’t tasted victory since blanking out the Los Angeles Rams 28-0 in the season opener.
On paper, this is a lopsided matchup in which Miami comes in as an eight-point favorite at home. However, everyone knows there are no easy games in the National Football League, and any team can win on any given Sunday.
Therefore, this week’s preparation must be taken as seriously as if it were the New England Patriots coming to town rather than a Niners team that’s lost nine in a row. Gase and his staff will need to get everyone on the same page as far as strategy and mind-set is concerned.
Pound the rock with RB Jay Ajayi
Even though Ryan Tannehill is coming off a stellar performance in last week’s 14-10 win over the Rams, the Dolphins must play to their opponent’s biggest weakness. Statistically, San Francisco possesses one of the worst defenses in football. However, there’s one area in particular where this team is the most vulnerable, and it plays right into one of Miami’s offensive strengths.
Coach Gase and offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen must game plan to have running back Jay Ajayi be the focal point of the Fins' attack this week. Not only do the Niners have the worst rushing defense in the NFL—ranked 32nd and averaging 179.5 rushing yards per game surrendered—but they’ve also allowed opposing running backs to eclipse the century mark in eight of their nine loses this season.
In Week 2, Carolina Panthers’ Fozzy Whittaker ran an even 100 yards. In Week 3 it was Christine Michael of the Seattle Seahawks that torched them for 106 yards (Michael was claimed off waivers on Nov. 16 by the Packers). In Week 4, rookie Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys got in on the act by rushing for 138 yards.
David Johnson of the Cardinals had 157 rushing yards that followed that performance in Week 5, along with notable additional 100-yard rushing performances by Buffalo Bills’ LeSean McCoy (140 yards in Week 6), Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Jacquizz Rodgers (154 yards in Week 7), New Orleans Saints’ Mark Ingram (158 yards in Week 8), and New England Patriots’ LeGarrette Blount was the latest one to rush for 124 yards in a blowout victory last week.
Solid offensive line play is vital
While most observers would indicate that Miami’s sudden turnaround has been a complete team effort, there’s no doubt the Dolphins turned a corner when everyone in the offensive line got healthy. But, injuries are as much part of the game as anything else, and the Fins have three key players from the offensive line banged up heading into Week 12.
In particular, the health statuses of (tackle) Branden Albert, (guard) Laremy Tunsil and (center) Mike Pouncey will be instrumental, not only in Miami extending its win streak to six games, but also for its hopes of sneaking into the NFL playoffs.
Albert and Pouncey sat out last week’s game against the Rams, and when they’ll be back on the field remains a mystery. Tunsil, on the other hand, had his name called last week to help fill the void left by Albert’s absence. Nevertheless, the Fins’ first-round draft pick left the Rams game due to a shoulder injury and did not return.
“I’m hoping they all make a miraculous recovery,” Christensen said during a Wednesday press conference.
In the case that neither one of those players is able to go, the Fins are ready to start Sam Young at left tackle, Kraig Urbik at left guard and Anthony Steen at center.
Contain 49ers rushing attack
San Francisco’s offense enters Week 12 of the 2016 NFL season ranked penultimate in passing yards per game (189.8), antepenultimate in total yards (309.6) and 24th in points per game (20.4). That said, the Niners do one thing very well, which is running the football, where they rank fifth in the National Football League, averaging 120 yards per contest.
Needless to say, Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph must take a page out of the offensive game plan and focus his attention on exploiting the Niners’ problem areas. Miami’s ever-improving defense must gear its attention toward stopping the rush— which is where this team generates most of its offense from,—and force them to become one-dimensional.
Make Colin Kaepernick a pocket passer
Everyone knows that 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is at his best when he can scramble and become a playmaker with his legs. His ability to tuck it in and abandon the pocket makes him very dangerous and frustrating for opposing defenses to deal with.
If Miami can force Kaepernick to stay put and become a pocket-passer it would go a long way as far as keeping them off the scoreboard, and more importantly, it could lead to some turnovers. Look for Miami to stack the box every chance they get and force the controversial signal-caller to beat them with his arm (53 percent completion rate, which ranks 14th worst in NFL) rather than allowing him to go where he’s most comfortable.
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