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USATSI

Last week, Tua Tagovailoa and the Miami Dolphins played what was likely their worst offensive game of the season. 

After scoring a 75-yard touchdown on the opening play, the Dolphins managed just 233 total yards and 10 points on their ensuing 47 snaps. Tagovailoa himself completed only 17 of his final 32 passes for 220 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. He also took three sacks and lost a fumble. He looked uncomfortable and out of sorts throughout much of the afternoon, and was uncharacteristically inaccurate. His 24.2% off-target throw rate, per Tru Media, was by far his worst mark of the season, as was his explosive plays (20-plus-yard gains) per dropback rate of only 5.6%. 

In other words, none of the usual characteristics we've come to expect from this season's Dolphins offense were there. They did not consistently move the ball. Of the 10 drives following Trent Sherfield's game-opening score, just two of them gained more than 20 yards. Miami did not convert on third downs, going 0 for 7 in the game. The Dolphins were not efficient or accurate in the passing game. Again, Tagovailoa completed only 52.9% of his passes and was off target with nearly a quarter of his attempts. And they did not create big plays. Just two pass plays gained 20 yards or more, including Sherfield's score. 

Considering how dominant Miami had been offensively prior to taking on the 49ers -- it ranked second in both EPA (expected points added) per play and Football Outsiders' DVOA through Week 12 -- it's worth asking a): What did San Francisco do that so flummoxed the Miami offense; and b): Was the Niners' strategy and execution replicable? 

Let's begin by tackling the first question. Largely what San Francisco did is what San Francisco usually does, which is also what most teams do against the Dolphins. The Niners played zone on nearly every snap, utilizing man coverage only twice, according to Tru Media. Most teams are terrified of playing man against Miami due to the combination of Tua's accuracy and the breathtaking speed and yards after catch ability of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle

The Niners also very rarely blitzed Tagovailoa, preferring instead to go with a four-man rush. San Francisco sent extra rushers only five times on 36 dropbacks, a 13.9% blitz rate. Sending extra rushers leaves you a man (or more) short in coverage, so you need the pressure to hit home extremely quickly for those blitzes to be successful. Due to how quickly Tagovailoa tends to get the ball out of his hands and how quickly Hill and Waddle can scoot their way through the secondary for big gains, blitzing is especially dangerous against Miami. So, the Niners just didn't do it very often. Again, that's in keeping with how teams have played the Dolphins this year: Opponents have blitzed on just 18% of dropbacks against a league average north of 26%. 

But don't confuse San Francisco playing zone and rushing four with meaning that the Niners played passive defense. They did anything but. Their defensive backs were in the faces of Miami's receivers all afternoon. According to Tru Media, the 49ers used press coverage on 45.8% of snaps, the third-highest rate at which anyone has pressed against Miami this year. Big, physical cornerbacks who excel at jamming receivers off the line of scrimmage and throwing off the timing of opposing offenses (like Charvarius Ward) are key to this strategy, which, helpfully, is what San Francisco likes to do anyway. 

Pressing up on the perimeter and throwing off the timing of Miami's offense also helped the Niners take away the middle of the field, which is where Tagovailoa likes to attack most. Consider the difference between Tagovailoa's passing heat map in Weeks 1 through 12 and the one from Week 13.

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Tru Media

Sending receivers up the seams, on digs, on crossers and on glance routes is one of the foundational aspects of Miami's offense. Making the receivers work harder or longer to get into those routes made things operate just a bit slower, which meant Tagovailoa occasionally had to throw the ball before his receiver was ready to make a break. That led to Tua missing his receivers high on occasion, which is a recipe for disaster against a team in zone coverage. (He missed Waddle high with several passes.) 

Imperfect spacing on some of the route concepts meant passes that would normally be completed instead wound up getting tipped. Some of them is defensive strategy, but some of it is also just Fred Warner being awesome, and better at taking away the intermediate middle of the field than any other linebacker in football: 

Tagovailoa also just flat-out missed on several throws, whether because his timing was thrown off, he was rattled by what he had been seeing in coverage throughout the day, or some other reason. The interception he threw on a pass intended for Tyreek Hill was one of the most egregious misses you'll see all season, and it was extremely uncharacteristic for him. (The interception on a pass to Jeff Wilson Jr. was the result of Wilson falling down out of his break.) 

You'll notice I have not yet mentioned the run defense, and that's because, well, the 49ers didn't really have to play any run defense. The Dolphins gave their running backs just eight carries for a total of 33 yards. That's not because the Niners were up big all afternoon, either. It's because the Dolphins knew they were unlikely to be successful running the ball, given the relative weakness of their offensive line (which was also missing both of its starting tackles) compared with the dominance of the 49ers' defensive front. 

From Miami's perspective, there's good news and bad news here. 

The good news is that the list of teams that a) can get consistent pressure while almost exclusively rushing four, b) have cornerbacks who can play physical, press coverage against the league's fastest receivers and actually get away with it, c) have a linebacker (duo, really, due to the presence of Dre Greenlaw in addition to Warner) who can almost single-handedly handle the middle of the field and d) neutralize the threat of the run game so completely that the Dolphins abandon it whole-cloth from the jump is relatively small. 

There's a reason the 49ers are arguably the NFL's best defense. 

The bad news is that two of the teams that come closest to fitting that description also reside in the Dolphins' division, and are on Miami's schedule over the next few weeks. That would be the Buffalo Bills (whom Miami beat earlier this season, albeit in a game where the Bills were extremely shorthanded in the secondary) and the New York Jets (who beat the Dolphins in a game where third-stringer Skylar Thompson took the significant majority of the snaps under center). 

Buffalo won't have Von Miller the next time those two teams play, but it will have Gregory Rousseau, Ed Oliver, Carlos Basham Jr., A.J. Epenesa, Jordan Phillips, Shaq Lawson, DaQuan Jones and Tim Settle. It will also have Tre'Davious White back in the mix, along with Jordan Poyer on the back end. And the Bills have the combination of Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano at linebacker. New York has one of the NFL's best defensive fronts, led by Shaq Lawson and Quinnen Williams. It has arguably the NFL's best perimeter cornerback duo in Sauce Gardner and D.J. Reed. And it has C.J. Mosley patrolling the middle of the field. 

The Dolphins will play those two teams in Weeks 15 and 18. That might actually be a good thing for them, though. They'll get a chance to try some new things, see if they can solve the type of problems the 49ers posed for them last Sunday. As they head toward the playoffs, it's important to try to answer as many questions as possible about how they should attack. Getting to face two more premier defenses that play a similar style to the one that caused them the most problems is the best way to find out whether it can be solved.