Who: Dolphins (1-3) at 49ers (2-2)
When: Sunday, October 11, 4:05 EDT
Where: Levi's Stadium -- Santa Clara, California
Weather: 74 degrees, partly cloudy, 16 MPH winds
Success in the NFL is measured on the scoreboard and ultimately in the win column. Amid results – satisfactory or not – it's the process that usually determines future outcomes. For Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch in San Francisco, building an NFC power was a process that hinged on innovation and patience.
"Kyle is very innovative. He's always looking for something new to gain an edge offensively," Flores said. "There are some things that are the core of his offense that he's probably going to run some form or fashion. How he gets to it, your guess is as good as mine, because there are a lot of shifts, there are a lot of motions, there is a lot of missiles, let's call it gadgetry to get to a formation."
The 49ers started 0-9 under its current regime. Since then, Lynch and Shanahan acquired a quarterback who is 24-7 as the team's starter, they won a division title, 13 games a year ago and went to the Super Bowl. Patience, belief in the plan and a lot of hard work helped return one of the NFL's most-storied franchise back to its glory.
Sunday, the 49ers welcome the Miami Dolphins into Levi's Stadium, a young team with a mission of making daily strides of their own. The early-season schedule for Miami has been daunting with a combined opposition's record of 11-5. Miami's point differential is -3 on the season, not unlike Shanahan's 2018 49ers (his Year 2) team who started the season 1-3 with a -18 point differential playing against three eventual playoff teams.
For Miami, closing games in the fourth quarter is the next step in the process. The team has been in the lead or within one score in the game's final period in all four contests this season. The 49ers are .500 despite a mounting injured reserve list and another handful of players on the weekly injury report.
Current Injury Report
To find the latest injury report for Dolphins-49ers click here.
Digging deep into the depth chart, the 49ers added two more players to injured reserve following Sunday's loss to Philadelphia. Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Ezekiel Ansah, K'Wuan Williams, Richard Sherman, Weston Richburg, Jordan Reed and Solomon Thomas make up less than half of San Francisco's list of unavailable players (17 players total).
Still, the 49ers are winning games in convincing fashion. Starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has a 77.4 winning percentage since he was acquired in 2017. He missed the last two games with an injury but was a limited participant in practice Wednesday (Thursday's report will be available soon). Shanahan has two more quarterbacks with a wealth of experience in Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard who, collectively, have started 20 games, but with a 5-15 record.
The 49ers are adept at bullying teams up front on both sides of the ball. The second-ranked rushing offense in 2019 returned three of the top five snap-takers and replaced one future Hall of Fame candidate (Joe Staley) with another in Trent Williams. That front pairs with a list of speedy, shifty backs and arguably the best tight end in the NFL (George Kittle) to create big plays in the run game.
"(They have) good backs, a good offensive line, tight ends who block and then just schematically, these guys do a good job creating angles and putting themselves in good position to rattle off big runs," Flores said. "This will be a big, big challenge for us."
Arik Armstead leads the defense with 18 quarterback pressures. Dolphins veteran lineman Jesse Davis talked about Armstead's strengths as a pass rusher and run defender.
"He's got long movements, long arms. He looks like a strong player," Davis said. "It's something that I've seen before, but I've never gone against the guy. Their whole front looks pretty solid."
Tackling On the Edge
The 49ers went with a pair of elusive wide receivers in each of the last two drafts (Deebo Samuel in the second round in 2019 and Brandon Aiyuk in the first round last April). Both are explosive playmakers with the ball in their hands. The San Francisco offense will get them the ball on rush attempts and screens to create open-field tackling situations on the edge.
It's not just the 49ers' receivers that challenge the perimeter tackling; no team is better running the football outside. Last season, San Francisco ran the ball off either end 60 times for 363 yards, three touchdowns and 17 first downs. They also picked up 255 yards after contact on such runs – all of those stats were tops for San Francisco among potential gaps to run through (per Pro Football Focus).
Miami's perimeter corners are equipped to handle the challenge. Xavien Howard, Byron Jones and Noah Igbinoghene are strong, sure tacklers with a combined 22 tackles compared to four missed attempts this season, per Pro Football Focus.
Dolphins Pass Rush vs. 49ers Front
The 49ers' starting quarterback is undetermined at this time, but the recipe is the same for all three – heat them up with pressure. Garoppolo was limited in practice Wednesday as he hopes to return from an ankle injury. Nick Mullens had a passer rating of 41.5 against pressure in Sunday's loss to Philadelphia while C.J. Beathard posted a rating of 71.9 with rushers closing in.
The 49ers have surrendered 13 sacks through four games, sixth-most in the NFL. Trent Williams started all four games at left tackle after missing the 2019 season. He's been credited with only six pressures allowed. Shaq Lawson made an impact with a crucial sack of Russell Wilson last week while Emmanuel Ogbah picked up his second sack of the season. They'll be facing off against Williams and right tackle Mike McGlinchey (10 pressures allowed, per PFF).
No team utilizes motion more than the 49ers offense. With pre-snap shifting or motion on 75.7 percent of the snaps this season, Shanahan's ability to create leverage in the running game and passing lanes with window dressing before the snap is perhaps the best in football.
Using the two capable receivers in jet motion with the heavy use of two-back sets gives the defense a lot to look at. Dolphins linebacker Jerome Baker talked about combatting the motion and movement by preparing for it.
"Depending where you're at on the call, it might be your job to leverage the motion," Baker said. "The motion might not affect you at all. Just understanding what your role is and then throughout the week, you really want to go through film and make calls and adjustments, and just get used to constantly seeing it, so on Sundays it's a lot easier."
Dolphins safety Eric Rowe offered his opinion on how to thwart the effectiveness of pre-snap motion.
"We all have to be on the same page on motion, shift, kind of whatever they do," Rowe said. "So when I mean 'breakdown in communication,' if the offense, they did some sort of motion and then whatever call that we have to give out, we have to give it out clean, faster, crisp so we can execute.
No team in the NFL uses 21-personnel (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR) more than Shanahan's 49ers. The offense also uses 22- and 23-personnel with the three packages combining for 122 of the offenses 263 snaps (46.4 percent). No fullback has logged more snaps in the NFL than Kyle Juszczyk's 125 (45.8 percent of the offensive snaps).
Managing injuries on both sides of the ball, no 49ers' receiver has played more than Kendrick Bourne's 79.1 percent snap count and Kittle, the All Pro tight end, has been limited just 48.7 percent of the offensive snaps due to injury. Kittle returned last Sunday vs. Philadelphia in emphatic fashion as he caught all 15 of his targets for 183 yards and a touchdown. In 2019, Kittle was PFF's No. 1 ranked receiving tight end and the No. 5 ranked run-blocking tight end.
The 49ers rank 11th in total offense (390.5 YPG) and scoring offense (26.8 PPG), and third in total defense (294.8 YPG) and scoring defense (17.8 PPG). They feature the 12th ranked passing offense (262.0 YPG) and 11th ranked rushing attack (128.5 YPG). The pass defense is second in the NFL allowing just 184.0 yards per game while the run defense is tied for 14th, allowing 110.8 yards per game.
San Francisco dials up extra rushes at the ninth-highest rate in the NFL (34.2 percent blitz rate) – 1.8 percent higher than the 10th most-frequent blitzing team in Miami. The result: the 49ers have the third-highest pressure rate at 30.3 percent but rank 18th in sacks with eight.
Only four teams call more four defensive back packages than San Francisco at 36.3 percent. The rest of the calls come primarily in nickel where the 49ers play their most frequent defensive grouping at 62.9 percent (17th most in the NFL).
Final Thoughts and Game Notes
The 49ers are dealing with a rash of injuries to key players this season. The 2-2 record – with a pair of runaway road victories – are a testament to Shanahan's program, system and the next-man-up mentality of San Francisco. The home side will be without 2019 Rookie of the Year and team leader in sacks Nick Bosa, while last year's leading rushing – Raheem Mostert – has been limited in practice.
The two sides are comparable in the turnover department. Both have five takeaways (tied for 14th in the NFL) while Miami has five giveaways to San Francisco's four. The comparison is similar on third down offense. The Dolphins 46.9 percent conversion rate ranks ninth while San Francisco's 46.8 conversion rate on third downs ranks 10th in the NFL.
DeVante Parker's next 100-yard game will be the 10th of his career. Parker would become the eighth receiver in team history with double-digit 100-yard performances. He's coming off a career high in receptions with 10 in the 31-23 loss to Seattle.
Miami leads the all-time regular season series 7-5 over San Francisco and the lone playoff meeting went to the 49ers in Super Bowl XIX.
This is the Dolphins' first trip to Levi's Stadium, which opened in 2014. All six of Miami's trips to San Francisco were played at Candlestick Park; those six games were split three apiece.
It's our first game in the Sunday late window; we'll recap the game both on MiamiDolphins.com on the Drive Time Podcast with Travis Wingfield.