The San Francisco 49ers loss to the Miami Dolphins this past Sunday was head-scratching on a few different levels. There was enough good to win the game, a lot of bad that prevented a victory, and enough ugly to ensure a win wasn’t going to happen. We’ll start with the bad.
Kyle Shanahan said that the defense expected Ahkello Witherspoon would play on Sunday. Throughout the week, the 49ers had discussed an emergency plan at cornerback that included Tarvarius Moore and Jimmie Ward. Shanahan said neither of them had practiced at the position in multiple years, which ultimately affected the team’s decision to roll with Brian Allen.
Knowing that you have to play a Miami Dolphins offense that was going to spread you out and throw the ball, and you’d have two cornerbacks that you called up from the practice squad, you’d think your defensive coordinator would protect said cornerbacks. That didn’t happen. The 49ers came out playing a lot of 2-man coverage, which is where two safeties are playing deep zone to prevent long passes, and five defenders underneath are in man coverage. It’s the most uncomplicated coverage that requires little teaching, but that doesn’t give Saleh an excuse. Look at this alignment:
That’s the first play from scrimmage where the Dolphins took a shot down the field and succeeded for 47 yards. Allen is on an island. Why? Wouldn’t you rather let the Dolphins pick on a player such as Jason Verrett and not, I don’t know, a player who you called up the day before the game?
That pre-snap alignment was far from an anomaly. Here is the pre-snap alignment on the next possession where DeVante Parker caught a 28-yard back-shoulder throw. Again, There’s zero help for Allen:
If you’re going to leave Allen in, then whatever, sure, but leaving him isolated to the boundary against talented receivers is a death knell. Saleh was begging for the Dolphins to throw it to Allen, and they did. A simple switch could have been putting Verrett to the boundary, and Allen to the field, where the throws are much further and difficult to complete—which is why you don’t see Verrett targeted often.
Shanahan said the receivers had six drops on Sunday. There were plays where both quarterbacks put the ball on target, but the wideout couldn’t hang on. Kendrick Bourne had a couple, and each of the other primary receivers contributed. What stood out to me was the lack of separation. That hurt more than the drops. You could tell that Deebo Samuel isn’t right yet. Too often, he was hung up on press coverage and couldn’t shake free from the cornerback. These are the plays we can’t see on the broadcast:
That’s an exaggerated example, but there were a handful of those plays from Samuel, Bourne, and Brandon Aiyuk. The Dolphins are fast and have sound technique and experience at cornerback. I’d argue this group will be the best trio of CBs we see for some time. The lack of practice reps and playing time showed for Deebo, but he, along with Bourne and Aiyuk, are going to have to get better against man coverage. If that doesn’t happen, expect teams to do what the Dolphins did.
The 49ers speed (Mostert, Raheem) allowed them to get to the edge in this front, but the Dolphins had success in the passing game running that 6-1 front that’s pictured above. Shanahan did not have an answer for these looks, and it’s giving the offensive line issues. If the 49ers wideouts can’t win 1-on-1, expect to see more fronts like this moving forward.
As much as we made a fuss about the offensive line, there were two blown blocks during the first half. Only one resulted in a sack, but Jimmy Garoppolo did not suffer from poor blocking against Miami. More on that later.
Raheem Mostert fell victim to the circumstance of the game. He’s one of the most impressive running backs in the NFL when healthy. Mostert forced five missed tackles, and a few of those came when the Dolphins had an unblocked defender in the backfield or at the line of scrimmage.
Defensively, I thought the 49ers played well during the first half. I understand how silly that sounds, but they controlled the line of scrimmage. D.J. Jones, Kevin Givens, Arik Armstead, and Kerry Hyder Jr. were all stout against the run and resetting the scrimmage line. Kwon Alexander was flying around, and Fred Warner took away passing concepts. Jaquiski Tartt remains undervalued by fans and got the defense out of a few bad situations. Tartt took on blocks from the offensive lineman but broke up passes in coverage. He’s fantastic. The practice squad cornerbacks did the defense in. It didn’t help that Saleh put them in situations where they couldn’t succeed. When you allow 185 yards on six receptions in one half between two cornerbacks, the results won’t be pretty. There’s no putting makeup on the ugly that was Sunday. The defense has to play worlds better if they’re going to compete. With that said, if you replace the two cornerbacks, the Niners defense played well as a unit. That should continue against the Rams.
Let’s pick back up on Allen and Jamar Taylor. The numbers are ugly, and so was the play. Yes, Saleh is at fault for putting them in those situations, but you have to give a little resistance. Eight targets and eight blown coverages between the two. They combined to allow three receptions for over 20 yards. The 47-yarder that Taylor gave up looked like a little league outfielder trying to catch a fly ball. Allen struggled to get his head around when the ball came his way, but he was losing on the first or second step of his targets. It’s safe to say we’ve seen the last of Allen, and I wonder if we see a new nickel cornerback against the Rams, where Cooper Kupp lines up.
Kyle Shanahan said three of the five sacks allowed were from miscommunication upfront. That phrase has led some to believe that the quarterbacks are safe from criticism. I’m not sure how you could watch the first half and come away thinking the line was the problem. With Garoppolo under center, the offensive line allowed one sack that was a miscommunication, and Laken Tomlinson allowed a blown block. Aside from that? The pressure was caused by the quarterback holding onto the ball, not moving, or having happy feet.
One sack was on Garoppolo. If you hold the ball for 3.85 seconds, that’s not on the line. Jimmy was hurt, and that certainly affected what he could do in the pocket. Poor decision-making can’t be blamed on an ankle injury. Throwing the ball across the field hurt the offense in training camp—and Garoppolo has yet to break that bad habit during games. Throwing the ball late has been an issue for Garoppolo, as has his footwork. The icing on the cake was feeling phantom pressure, which I am willing to give Jimmy G a pass for since it was his first game back, and there’s no way to simulate live action. The most concerning part was Garoppolo’s footwork. It was all over the place, and that affected his ball placement. Garoppolo was on target for seven of his throws. He was off-target on ten throws. You have no shot as an offense if your quarterback is that inaccurate.
The Dolphins smelled blood in the water. Miami knew the quarterbacks were dropping their eyes when the saw pressure, so Miami loaded up the box, forced the receivers to win 1-on-1, and pinned their ears back. The pressure in the second half is what you do when you’re up big. That’s not what we’re going to see moving forward. Not every down, anyway.
Garoppolo has to play better, or his time will be up in the Bay Area. Lucky for him, he’s shown he could play at a much higher level, and there are plenty of weapons to go around on offense. If it takes a week or two to heal his ankle, then so be it, but the clock is ticking, and it’s starting now.