The San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins already know each other well, even if they haven’t met in some time.
This will be the 15th all-time meeting between the San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins.
Outside of Super Bowl XIX, no matchup between the two has ever been more intriguing.
San Francisco is 7-4, a Super Bowl contender leading the NFC West. Miami is 8-3, also a title hopeful and pacing the AFC East. On Sunday, the Dolphins will come cross-country to visit Levi’s Stadium, giving Mike McDaniel the opportunity to revisit old friends.
McDaniel has revived Miami in his first season as head coach, this after being plucked from San Francisco where he served as an offensive assistant from 2017-21. The 39-year-old has transformed quarterback Tua Tagovailoa — using protegè Kyle Shanahan’s system — from replacement-level to irreplaceable, seeing him rise in the MVP conversation.
Despite missing most of three games, Tagovailoa has thrown for 2,564 yards and 19 touchdowns against three interceptions. His main targets, Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, has combined for 2,196 of those yards, with Hill leading the NFL at 1,233.
Yes, McDaniel deserves much of the credit. But to give McDaniel credit means looking into where he came from.
Shanahan, who has helmed San Francisco since 2017, has known McDaniel since the latter was 23 years old. The two worked together 14 years, including stops with the Houston Texans, Washington Redskins, Cleveland Browns, Atlanta Falcons and 49ers, where McDaniel was almost always under Shanahan’s tutelage.
Watching Miami, the offensive similarities are striking. Much like 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, Tagovailoa is asked to get rid of the ball quickly, often on quick, simple reads. The offenses also call for a litany of passes between the numbers, with route combinations designed for ample after-catch yardage.
Some will read the above as slander against Tagovailoa. It’s not. The reality is Miami’s offense is taking advantage of the speed from Hill and Waddle, while minimizing an average offensive line. The ask of Tagovailoa is to be smart, making reads pre-snap and be accurate. In Shanahan’s system, nothing is more paramount than a smart quarterback who can not only complete passes, but complete them to a receiver in stride.
On Sunday, Miami’s style will need to be in full effect.
The 49ers have one of the league’s best pass rushes, led by Nick Bosa’s 11.5 sacks. San Francisco has a deep rotation of pocket-pushers, keeping it fresh and ready to devour an injured Dolphins’ front which will be without left tackle Terron Armstead as he recovers from a pectoral ailment.
In short, Tagovailoa must rely on his ground game led by former 49ers running back Jeff Wilson — traded from San Francisco to Miami at the deadline — and quick throws to win.
The problem? Shanahan knows this, and knows how McDaniel will be thinking. Therein lies the chess match.
In a critical game for both sides, which coach can outfox the other by stepping outside his normal ethos and going against the proverbial grain? The Niners have more overall talent and a coach with more experience, but McDaniel has the superior offense with elite speed.
Winning will likely take more correct moves from Shanahan, but only a few splashes from Miami to undo his good work.
The Dolphins and the 49ers are typically unfamiliar foes.
On Sunday, it’ll have the familiarity of a Thanksgiving game in the backyard, with the consequences of two contenders battling in December.
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