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Film room: How Miami’s defensive scheme stalled the 49ers offense

This weeks film room dives into how the Dolphins defensive game plan limited the 49ers passing game.

NFL: Miami Dolphins at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers were the victims of a blowout on their home field Sunday, dropping their Week 5 game to the Miami Dolphins 43-17. They have yet to win a home game this season. And it’s not going to get easier with the Los Angeles Rams in town this Sunday for the NBC primetime game. At 2-3, the 49ers season feels all but over at this point unless they can right the ship with a convincing win over the Rams.

For now, the 49ers have a lot to clean up on offense. At his postgame press conference, one line stood out more than others. “I think we were pretty embarrassed in the first half.” Whether he felt embarrassed or embarrassed by the Dolphins on the field (both probably), the sentiment is all the same. The 49ers’ lack of execution was entirely their own fault. But it was helped along by a phenomenal Miami defensive game plan.

So what did Miami do to the 49ers offense?

Well, they basically stole the blueprints from head coach Brian Flores’s time as the defensive coordinator for Bill Belichick in 2018. In that season, Vic Fangio first gave the Rams all they could handle with his 6-1 tilt front that limited the Rams one back 11 personnel running game. Belichick and the Patriots built on that and essentially stuffed the Rams wide zone scheme for three-and-half hours in the Super Bowl playing the 6-1 with a mix of quarters coverage and single high cover-3 and cover-1 coverage.

The 6-1 front

The Dolphins had little success against the 49ers run game but they took their chances with the 6-1 front anyways. The 49ers had gains of 5, 7, 5, 37, 5. 7 (touchdown) against the 6-1. The Dolphins never went back to it. And many teams might not challenge them with it as a result.

The 6-1 was largely ineffective due to the use of a fullback. Whereas the Rams struggled to block it with 11 personnel, the 49ers did not because of the angles the fullback creates for the blockers and the extra blocker it gives them. In 11 personnel, the 6-1 creates essentially six 1-on-1 matchups across the front, not allowing the offense to execute the required double teams in the zone running game. For the 49ers, the fullback adds an extra blocker, and even if that only allows them to gain five or six yards, that’s better than zero.

The other big play that took the Dolphins out of a 6-1 was the pin and pull toss that running back Raheem Mostert gained 37 yards on early in the second quarter. With so many defenders in tight to play the outside zone, the defense is unable to counter with defenders on the edge to slow the flow of the run.

Zone spot dropping

The Dolphins schemed their game plan to zone spot drop to the middle of the field and take away the throws that Jimmy Garoppolo likes to make in the short to intermediate range.

The first pass of the game, the Dolphins are showing a mugged A-gap look where the linebackers show blitz in both A-gaps. The pre-snap looks indicates to Garoppolo that the defense is in man coverage, confirmed by a defender traveling with the motion receiver. If Garoppolo had a zone beater he could audible to; he didn’t do it because the Dolphins were actually sitting in zone coverage play call.

Against man, Garoppolo would’ve thrown to McKinnon, who would’ve cut inside if the linebackers had blitzed. Instead, McKinnon cuts out due to the defense having inside leverage, and Garoppolo hesitates and doesn’t come off the read and throws the pass at a difficult angle. He had a clean pocket to scan, but he chose to sit on the choice route, which didn’t pay off.

At other times, the Dolphins stayed simple, took away the flats, and sat in the middle of the field, ready to pounce anything that came into their zone. Switching back to zone before halftime, the Dolphins dropped their zones into the areas of the field the 49ers like to take advantage of.

Since Garoppolo struggles with throws outside the numbers, the 49ers don’t often throw there, preferring to give the quarterback other route combos to work the middle of the field with, especially in hurry-up situations. The 49ers had two timeouts and 30 seconds left in the half and were seemingly trying to get something going by trying to get into scoring position.

The Dolphins are in a basic cover-3 buzz on this second down throw, spot dropping into the throwing lanes the 49ers like to use in these situations. Garoppolo targets Kittle on the dig route over the middle, a route that takes him right into the buzz zone by the safety dropping down to cover his route. The throw isn’t perfect, but Kittle should’ve caught this. Garoppolo had to put it in a spot where only Kittle could catch it, and he did.

On the next play, Garoppolo threw an interception and killed any chance the 49ers had at possibly getting into field goal range, at least. They certainly had plenty of time still at this point. And completing this would’ve put them at midfield, increasing their chances for some points.

The play call is “Trips RT 3 Jet Hooters” and is a dagger seam concept designed to attack the cover-3 zone’s weaknesses between the deep corner and curl/flat defender. The curl/flat defender sinks with the dagger and peels off at the last second to cover the stop route from the number two receiver on the trips side, leaving Garoppolo a throwing lane. But Garoppolo is already hurried at this point and rushes a throw that sails over receiver Deebo Samuel and into the arms of Xavien Howard.

Man coverage creates tight windows

When the Dolphins weren’t spot dropping into the quarterback’s throwing lanes, they were creating tight window throws with man coverage and not allowing receivers to get open easily and were simultaneously adding to the rush with an extra defender on a delayed blitz on some occasions. Garoppolo really wasn’t under pressure that much, facing pressure on just six of his 20 dropbacks.

On third and long, Flores liked to scheme up man coverage with a 5-man rush underneath, much as he did against the Rams in the Super Bowl, and Garoppolo was off-target as a result on a few throws. On this throw to Kendrick Bourne, the Dolphins send five rushers against five blockers, and the 49ers actually do a great job of picking up the line stunts to give Garoppolo time to throw.

But the throw is off-target and behind Bourne when it needed to be in front of him. The coverage was superb as well, with Bourne being blanketed at the top of his route. Garoppolo isn’t a tight window thrower, so this seemed to be the preferred coverage after this point.

Later in the second quarter, the Dolphins continued to send five rushers but were still unable to get to Garoppolo. Their coverage remained man coverage Cover 1, but this time they dropped a hole defender to the middle of the field to bracket one of the deep crossers.

The 49ers have a deep cross concept dialed up on 3rd-and-14 with a go route on the outside. The Dolphins are showing man free coverage across the board again. The defense is showing a potential 6-man rush again but only send five. The defender in the B-gap turns and runs deep at the snap looking for the deep crosser.

Garoppolo comes off the crossing route as the defender sinks under it and looks for Deebo as the single crosser from right to left. He has a step on the defender (and let’s face it, that’s considered open in the NFL), but Garoppolo sails it past him when he has an opportunity to hit the small window with a pass in front of Deebo.

In 2019, Garoppolo was near the bottom of the league in deep throw attempts. It’s not a strength of his, and rarely does Shanahan ever dial up a deep shot unless they truly know they can get a receiver wide open. He has hit some incredible seam throws, but it’s rare to get that kind of play from Shanahan.

Garoppolo’s first interception came on a seam throw against Cover 1, where the ball needed to be on the outside shoulder of McKinnon running down the numbers. The Dolphins are playing cover-1 “cross” with the down safety playing a robber zone at the sticks underneath in the middle of the field. 1-cross is used to disrupt deep crossing routes or shallow mesh concepts. The safety rotates down and the free safety sprints to the middle of the field, giving McKinnon a 1-on-1 on his seam vertical with the defender.

Garoppolo throws the ball with too much air and too far inside, allowing the free safety enough time to come over for the interception. The ball needed to be to the outside over McKinnon’s outside shoulder or more on a rope to his back shoulder.


After the game, Shanahan said, “I didn’t think it was good to keep him out there in the second half with that score and everything and that he wasn’t at his best.” He also stated that he didn’t really think the ankle injury was an issue but said he thought it might have prevented him from playing better. I’m not so sure considering Garoppolo played better on it hurt against the Jets and, in general, has always looked good in spots and erratic in others. Sunday was no different.

The focus might be a bit more on running the football against their division rival and preventing the Rams high powered offense from taking the field too much against a banged-up defense. Their weakness is run defense, but teams are naturally running the ball less in the second half (60 carriers in the first half, 53 in the second half) for a team that often gets out to early leads. The Rams run defense is ranked 24th in the NFL per Football Outsiders DVOA metric through five weeks. If there was ever a time to right the ship (I will continue saying this until all is hopelessly lost), then this is the week to get right.