In a Week 13 absolutely flush with great matchups and storylines, I'm most excited to see the chess match between Mike McDaniel and Kyle Shanahan at Levi's Stadium. It'll be more like a variation of chess though. We'll see plenty of creativity from both sides but with different pieces and different moves.
First off, when both offenses are healthy, these are two Super Bowl contenders. The Dolphins are unbeaten when Tua Tagovailoa plays an entire game this season and they average 6.7 yards per play with him on the field. The 49ers haven't lost when Christian McCaffrey starts and they average 6.4 yards per play with him on the field. That's a scary thought for opposing defenses, considering the Chiefs lead the league at 6.5 yards per play this season. Any time your offense is in Kansas City territory, watch out.
Both teams are doing this thanks to the brilliant minds of their head coaches and a plethora of playmakers. Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle make up the best (and fastest) wide receiver duo in the NFL. They are on pace to shatter the record for most receiving yards (3,393) by a pair of teammates in a season all-time (current record: 3,174 by Herman Moore and Brett Perriman for the 1995 Lions).
McDaniel and Shanahan have plenty of tricks to open up all that firepower. McDaniel was not only Shanahan's offensive coordinator last season, but they worked on the same staff for 14 years together. Naturally, McDaniel picked up a thing or two. Both employ a lot of motion that provides information to the offense on coverage they're facing and creates confusion for the defense. The Dolphins use motion at or before the snap at the highest rate in the NFL (74%) this season according to Pro Football Focus, while the 49ers rank third (66%).
We've seen how creative the 49ers offense can get since adding McCaffrey. He threw a touchdown pass against the Rams. Samuel ran one in off a reverse against the Cardinals two weeks ago. On any play those two can be lined up anywhere on the field and are capable of throwing for, rushing for, or catching a touchdown.
Even without a trick play, motion creates space. Check out how Miami shifting Raheem Mostert during the snap on this play drew the attention of two Lions defensive backs, creating room for Mike Gesicki's game-winning touchdown.
Both teams also have quarterbacks who get rid of the ball quickly into the hands of their playmakers, and rely heavily on passing to the middle of the field. That's where the similarities end, though.
Shanahan identified how Miami stretches the field: "Tua, to me, is the reason that they're leading the league in explosives because he knows how to hit people over the middle. It's rarely deep. It's usually running and hitting these guys on the move and there's some really open space with all that speed and then the quarterback who can drop it over linebackers."
Pictured below is the heat map of both quarterback's throw locations this year, via TruMedia. While both focus on the middle of the field, Tua's throws stretch to another level of the defense, often testing the defense between 10-20 yards downfield, behind the linebackers, like Shanahan mentioned. Tagovailoa has the third-longest average pass length in the NFL this season while Garoppolo ranks 29th.
Both teams play to their strengths. The 49ers' is yards after the catch, hence the "YAC Bros" nickname: 60 percent of Garoppolo's pass yards have come after the catch this year. That's not just the highest rate in the NFL this season. It's the highest rate by any quarterback in a season since 2006, when YAC was first tracked (minimum 300 attempts). Miami is on the opposite end of the spectrum despite blazing speed from Hill and Waddle: 34 percent of Tua's pass yards are after the catch, the lowest rate by anyone in the last three years. The 49ers offense has skewed even more toward this extreme following the McCaffrey trade as Jimmy G is checking down even more often. His pass length has gone down over a yard since the deal.
This season is an even greater extreme for San Francisco, but we've seen their style for a few years now. I'm pretty sure we haven't seen anything quite like what Miami is doing. Affectionately known to some as the "Greatest Show on Surf" for a reason, Tagovailoa has completed over two-thirds of his passes thrown 10-plus yards downfield this season. That's the highest rate by any QB in a season since 2006, when that stat was first tracked. Tua also leads the league in percent of passes traveling 10-plus yards downfield. So he's stretching the defense more often than anyone in the NFL, and completing it more than anyone. That's unheard of. No QB has ever led the league in both categories.
Passing tendencies this season
Average time to throw
Average pass length
Percentage of passes with 10+ air yards
Percentage of pass yards after catch
The chart below shows the intersection of both stats. Tagovailoa is in the top right corner. The X-axis is a QB's completion rate on throws 10-plus yards downfield while the Y-axis is how often they attempt passes 10-plus yards. In terms of the frequency and success stretching the field, Tua's so far away from the rest of the league this season, he's in his own galaxy. Garoppolo doesn't stretch the field and when he does, he's below league average in completion rate.
The disparity is even more stark if we look even further down the field. Tua leads the league in completion rate 20-plus yards downfield while Garoppolo is second-worst, better than only Zach Wilson.
So why does it matter? Both offenses are clearly dangerous with different styles. Miami is on another level, though. Getting rid of the ball this quickly while also stretching the field with unparalleled success is a thing of beauty.
I'm not sure how their differences will factor into Sunday's outcome, especially taking each defense into account, and Miami down both starting offensive tackles, but I think Miami's philosophy gives them a higher ceiling in the playoffs. Their offense is tougher to defend and creates more big plays. We've seen the 49ers clearly carried by their run game and defense in past postseason runs. The offense is definitely more dynamic now with McCaffrey, but I question their ceiling if they can't consistently stretch the field. We've seen their offense stall as they blew double-digit fourth-quarter leads in Super Bowl LIV and in last season's NFC Championship game. We've seen Jimmy Garoppolo's missed deep ball to Emmanuel Sanders possibly change the outcome of a championship.
It's a new year of course with new possibilities, but I could not be more intrigued by Miami's offensive potential. Their final six games should be a great barometer for their Super Bowl hopes. They will notably face the 49ers, Bills and Patriots, all on the road, followed by the Jets in Week 18. That's four of the top six scoring defenses in the league, with two possible cold weather games in Buffalo and Foxboro. We'll see if I'm singing the same tune about Miami's high-flying offense in two months.