Miami Dolphins: 7 Players Who Need Big Games to Upset 49ers
The Miami Dolphins face a huge challenge this weekend.
Not only are they traveling across the country for this week's game, but they'll have to face the San Francisco 49ers when they land.
The Niners are nursing an 8-3-1 record and are virtually a lock for the playoffs. The Dolphins are 5-7 and are looking to play the role of spoiler.
Not many people are giving the Dolphins a chance in this game, and perhaps rightfully so. San Francisco packs a menacing defense (2nd in the NFL in total yards allowed) and a stout running game (2nd in yards per game) that can terrorize any team.
Miami is coming into Sunday's game having lost 4 of its last 5 games. Its offense oscillates between mediocre and downright terrible, and its secondary gives up yards to just about anyone who will ask politely.
Weighing those facts, it seems obvious that San Francisco should wipe the turf with Miami. But the Dolphins have a tough makeup and could prove to be a hard out for the Niners.
If the Dolphins want to pull off an unlikely upset on Sunday, they'll need big contributions from the following players.
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This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, but the Dolphins will need Ryan Tannehill to have a big game if they want to beat the 49ers.
Tannehill's rookie season has been marked by ups and downs. He had a career performance when he threw for 431 yards against the Cardinals. He's also had four multiple-interception games in losing efforts against the Texans, Cardinals, Bills and Titans.
The 49ers have perhaps the best defense Tannehill has faced in his still-blooming NFL career.
San Francisco possesses the No. 2 passing defense in the NFL. They're allowing 189 yards per game and have only given up 12 touchdowns through the air.
By comparison, Tannehill is averaging 213 yards per game and has only thrown seven touchdowns compared to 12 interceptions.
Luckily for the rookie QB, San Francisco doesn't get many interceptions. The 49ers have only 10 on the season, putting them in a six-way tie for 15th in the league.
Still, the odds are certainly stacked high against Tannehill. The Dolphins will need their young quarterback to find a way to overcome his largest challenge yet for an upset to happen.
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With Jake Long placed on IR after a triceps injury, it's Jonathan Martin's duty to take over the left tackle position.
His first task? Stop the NFL's sack leader, Aldon Smith. Isn't Martin just the luckiest?
Smith is one of the best outside linebackers in the game, and his total of 17.5 sacks leads the NFL. He's an absolute force of nature on the outside, wreaking havoc on opposing linemen and quarterbacks with undeterred ferocity.
Martin, meanwhile, is making his first start at left tackle in the NFL.
On the bright side, Martin did play left tackle during his time at Stanford, so he's not completely unfamiliar with the position. In fact, he played quite well last weekend when he took over for Long against New England.
But this week is a whole new story. Forget about stopping Smith. Can Martin at least slow down the monstrous linebacker? The Dolphins' hopes of victory (and Ryan Tannehill's hopes of walking without a limp) rest on the answer to that question.
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The Dolphins have been misusing their running backs lately.
This is a problem Miami will have to figure out by Sunday, because a successful game for Reggie Bush could help propel the Dolphins to a win.
It won't be that easy, though. In case you've just joined us, I'll reiterate: San Francisco's defense is nightmarish. The 49ers are giving up an average of 90.6 rushing yards per game and have only allowed three rushing touchdowns.
Those numbers are obviously staggering, but are to be expected from the NFL's 3rd best run defense.
While the title of this slide singles out Bush, the Dolphins' entire stable of backs will need to collectively have a good day. That means Daniel Thomas must run hard and protect the football and Jorvorskie Lane must make his lead blocks.
Bush, however, needs to see the field most.
He is Miami's most dynamic player on offense, and he needs to get as many runs as he can. The Dolphins would also be wise to line him up at receiver a few times to create mismatches, but it hasn't been done much this season, so I don't expect it in this game.
Miami's offensive line should be included here as well. Mike Pouncey, Richie Incognito and the rest of Miami's big men will have to do their best to create holes against one of the league's best defenses.
Paul Soliai and Randy Starks
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Paul Soliai and Randy Starks get to share a slide, because they are both responsible for Miami's own punishing run defense.
The Dolphins began the season as one of the toughest teams to run against. They've since relinquished a few big games to opposing rushers, but only one back has run for over 100 yards against them (Chris Johnson, 126 yards).
Miami still flaunts the 8th best run defense, thanks primarily to Soliai and Starks. At 6'4" and 6'3", respectively, and weighing a collective 650 pounds, these two giants swallow up any runner that dares to try the middle of Miami's defense.
But, as with every Dolphin on this list, these two will have a challenge on Sunday.
The 49ers are 2nd in the NFL on the ground, averaging 162.1 yards per game. Frank Gore is picking up 81 yards per game, his highest average since his massive 2006 season in which he ran for 1,695 yards.
Soliai and Starks should give Miami a lot of confidence on defense when it comes to plugging the middle. However, Gore isn't the only runner Miami will have to worry about, which leads to the next player on this list.
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While Paul Soliai and Randy Starks command the middle of the Dolphins' defensive line, there's no question Cameron Wake controls the outside.
Wake is more of a pass-rusher than a run-stopper, as evidenced by his 11 sacks this season. The Dolphins will need him to steadily apply pressure to 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick on Sunday.
As James Walker of ESPN.com points out, Kaepernick has not been great when under pressure. He's completed only 55.6 percent of his passes when facing five or more rushers.
The Dolphins should bring a constant rush led by Wake to keep Kaepernick's passing game under wraps. In addition, Miami will need to rely on Wake to preserve the edge and not allow Kaepernick to break any big runs to the outside.
Kaepernick is a dangerous runner, so it will be on all of Miami's front seven to limit the quarterback. But Wake is the most important factor in this situation, and he must perform at a high level.
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Dan Carpenter has had a rough season.
Miami's long-haired kicker had been considered money for the past couple of years, always coming through when the Dolphins needed him most.
This year has been a different story.
His struggles cost Miami a couple of overtime games early in the season. However, he could resurrect a slumping season with a strong finish over the next few weeks.
Opposing kickers have gone 16 for 21 against the 49ers. Carpenter is 17 of 22, but he has struggled with long-distance kicks.
As Greg Zuerlein proved last week, having a strong-legged kicker can be the difference between a win and a loss. His kick at the end of regulation and the game-winner in overtime lifted the Rams to a 16-13 win over the 49ers.
Miami's offense is expected to have a tough time moving against San Francisco's stifling defense. But if the Dolphins can get into field-goal range for Carpenter, and if the embattled kicker can come through, Miami could find themselves in a position to steal a win from San Francisco.