In one of the most anticipated matchups on the 49ers' schedule this season, they’ll host the Miami Dolphins at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday afternoon. Mike McDaniel makes his return to the Bay Area, bringing with him one of the most explosive offenses in the league that will be tasked with putting points up against the number one defense in the NFL.
DraftKings Sportsbook currently has the 49ers listed as a 4-point favorites in this one, with the over-under for the total at 46.5 points. Here are a few things to watch for in this heavyweight battle between two teams who are at the top of their respective divisions.
There are a lot of familiar faces on that Dolphins side, most notably former 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel who is now the head coach in Miami. In addition, Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson Jr., Trent Sherfield, and River Cracraft all spent considerable time with the 49ers and will now be making their return to Levi’s Stadium as a visitor in the place they once called home.
These two teams and these two coaching staffs know each other very well. It will be interesting to see who bucks tendencies first and more often in this one, as there is not very much in the way of surprise, given how familiar each side is with the other's respective schematic philosophies on a surface level.
Who wins in the middle of the field
On top of the familiarity, there is also a good amount of similarity between these teams as well, particularly with the desire to throw the ball over the middle in the intermediate area of the field (between 10-19 yards downfield).
Per Next Gen Stats, Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has completed 38 passes in the intermediate, middle third of the field this season, which is 16 more than the next-highest quarterback. 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo led all quarterbacks in the NFL last season with 45 completions to that area of the field.
The 49ers' defense has the perfect counter to that with a generational linebacker in Fred Warner, whose coverage ability is a major reason for the 49ers' success defensively. Since Warner was drafted in 2018, the 49ers have allowed just 71 completions in the intermediate middle third, which is 15 less than the next closest team.
This area of the field will be vital for both sides in determining who ultimately comes out of this matchup victorious, but the intermediate, middle third has also held an extremely valuable place league-wide over the last half-decade or so.
Since 2016 throws made between 10-19 yards in the middle of the field have generated the most EPA/Play than any other region on the field.
Last week the 49ers' offense had to square off with a Saints defense that has been elite all season at preventing teams from scoring touchdowns once they get in the red zone. However, this time around, the 49ers' defense is the one presented with the difficult challenge inside the 20-yard line, as Miami’s offense is ranked in the top ten in red zone efficiency this season.
If it’s any consolation to the 49ers' offense after the stout New Orleans defense, they faced last week. The Dolphins are near the bottom of the NFL in red zone efficiency this season. Miami is allowing opposing offenses to score touchdowns on 67.6 percent of their trips inside this season, which is the 4th worst mark in the league.
I expect both teams to move the ball relatively well in this one, so the outcome will ultimately be dependent on which team is able to come up big once the field starts to shrink.