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Dolphins-Niners: Five Things To Watch

Posted Dec 8, 2012

Niners provide another tough test for young Dolphins team.


>br>SAN FRANCISCO – Once the 2012 NFL schedule came out in April it was clear to everyone that the toughest stretch of games for the Miami Dolphins were going to be in late November and early December. Tomorrow ends that stretch.

Miami faces a talented and deep San Francisco 49ers squad at Candlestick Park at 4:05 p.m., Eastern Standard Time on the heels of playing the first-place New England Patriots out of the AFC East and the Seattle Seahawks out of the NFC West. The Dolphins split those two games at Sun Life Stadium, edging Seattle by a field goal, 24-21, and falling to New England last Sunday, 23-16.

San Francisco has been established as a 10-point favorite based on its 8-3-1 record, the fact that it’s a home game and Miami had to travel across the country and because it boasts the league’s No. 2 defense. The Niners are tops in scoring defense, allowing just 14.2 points per game.

Second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick brings an added dimension to the offense for San Francisco with his athleticism and running ability, while former University of Miami running back Frank Gore is a bruiser. This will be the first time Gore has faced his hometown team as he was injured and did not play in the 2008 meeting in Miami.

Former Dolphins receiver Ted Ginn, Jr., also will be facing the team that selected him in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft for the first time since being traded to San Francisco in 2010. All of these storylines and more will make this a compelling game.

Five Things To Watch:

1. Dolphins rookie left tackle Jonathan Martin versus Niners outside linebacker Aldon Smith – Without a doubt this will be the most scrutinized matchup of the afternoon with Martin making his first start on the left side after starting 12 games at right tackle. Jake Long’s triceps injury, which landed him on Injured Reserve, necessitated the switch and now Martin is being asked to contain the NFL’s sack leader in Smith, who has 17.5. Martin’s natural position is left tackle and he played it well for three years at Stanford protecting Andrew Luck, so he’s really going back home. He held his own last week against the Patriots after Long left the game late in the first quarter, but New England did not have a pass rusher close to the caliber of Smith. If Martin wins the day and keeps Smith away from rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill then Miami’s chances of winning increase substantially, but if he doesn’t …

2. How will Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle contend with the multiple looks San Francisco will throw at his defense – As much attention as the Niners’ defense gets, and rightfully so, their offense is quite stout as well. Thanks to Gore and Kaepernick, San Francisco ranks second behind only the Washington Redskins on the ground with an average of 162.1 yards per game and Kaepernick has four rushing touchdowns. When he’s not running, he has the arm strength and accuracy to connect with Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis and wide receiver Michael Crabtree, so the Dolphins’ secondary has to manage tight coverage and the front seven cannot miss filling the gaps on running plays and tackle effectively. “When (Kaepernick’s) been in the games he’s thrown the ball accurately, so we’ve got to have good, tight coverage on receivers,” Dolphins Head Coach Joe Philbin said. “We have to make him get off maybe his first desired receiver and make him go progress to two and three if we can. And then the discipline of the rush lanes that we’ve talked about, because certainly if he doesn’t like what he sees from a pass game standpoint, he has good mobility as we know and he’s got some elusiveness in the open field. He’s got some speed, so yeah he’s a lot to handle. He’s off to a good start as a pro.”

3. What will Tannehill, Reggie Bush and the rest of Miami’s offense be able to do differently that might confuse the 49ers’ linebackers and defensive backs and throw them off their rhythm – When San Francisco has blown out its opponents there has been a clear domination on the defensive side of the ball because players like Aldon Smith, Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Ahmad Brooks and NaVorro Bowman have been able to pin their ears back and rush the passer with reckless abandon. If Tannehill can get off to a fast start and complete passes to different receivers all over the field out of the three-step drop he can effectively negate San Francisco’s speed and quickness. At the same time, Bush and Daniel Thomas need to establish themselves on the ground and force the Niners to respect the run game, and if both of those things happen then offensive coordinator Mike Sherman can spring a few surprise wrinkles that can lead his team into the end zone.

4. Will Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake win his one-on-one battles with Niners tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis – Wake is to Miami’s defense what Aldon Smith is to San Francisco’s and his 11 sacks through 12 games is proof of that fact. The majority of the time Wake lines up over the right tackle, which in this case would be the 6-foot-5, 323-pound Davis. Even though he’ll be giving up two inches of height and 65 pounds to Davis, Wake’s speed, quickness and strength have proven to be too much to handle for most of the league’s big tackles. Staley is the same height as Davis but eight pounds lighter at 315 and made it to his first Pro Bowl last year. The way that Coyle likes to move Wake around means he very well could go up against Staley more than once, and if he can get around him and Davis on the other side for one or more sacks, pressures and hits, he could succeed in rattling young Kaepernick and forcing some errant throws.

5. How much of a factor will be the weather be at Candlestick Park – This is one of the oldest stadiums in the NFL and being situated right on San Francisco Bay has made it susceptible to very wicked windy conditions in the past. The forecast for tomorrow calls for partly cloudy skies with zero percent chance of rain and winds from the north/northeast reaching 10 miles-per-hour. Temperatures are expected to reach a high of 66-degrees Fahrenheit and a low of 50, so that sounds like ideal conditions. But the unpredictable winds whipping off the waters of the bay can throw off a passing game and a kicking game in the blink of an eye. Dolphins punter Brandon Fields seems to thrive in adverse weather conditions so that might work to his advantage for him and Miami, but the Niners have been playing here since 1971 and know every trick there is to creating a home field advantage.

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