The 49ers' Week 13 clash with the Miami Dolphins might be the most intriguing of the season, and while all eyes will be on everyone from head coaches to players, we’ve narrowed down the five players who will have the biggest impact on the final results.
There is no denying that speed might be the biggest weapon of the Dolphins' offense, and Miami coach Mike McDaniel knows how to scheme it up. The former 49ers offensive coordinator spent five seasons practicing against the 49ers' defense, whose personnel largely has stayed the same.
San Francisco's defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans understands the potential of not only Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s connection with speedy wideout Tyreek Hill, but how McDaniel will try to disguise his play calls with pre-snap motion.
“By moving guys around, making guys have to communicate, he hits you with any type of play,” Ryans said Thursday. “Whether it’s run game, pass game, he makes the play-action marry up with the run game, which makes it even more difficult, so just shout out to McDaniel. He’s doing a really good job there.”
The 49ers' offense cannot rely solely on Nick Bosa and Co. to shoulder all of the responsibility for a win on Sunday, as they did against the New Orleans Saints in Week 12. Jimmy Garoppolo will need to be productive from the get go, because playing catch up with the Dolphins -- PFF’s top-graded passing offense in the league -- will be an uphill battle.
Here are five 49ers to watch in Week 13:
CB Charvarius “Mooney” Ward
Ward and the 49ers' secondary arguably have the biggest challenge of the season on Sunday in attempting to shut down Hill, who leads the NFL in receiving yards (1,233) through 11 games. Hill and fellow wide receiver Jaylen Waddle are a lethal tandem who have racked up 2,196 yards and 10 touchdowns combined.
The 49ers' top flight defensive back likely will follow Hill to whatever side of the field he lines up on, which will leave Deommodore Lenoir to take care of Waddle. Ward will be tested early and often, and while there is no doubt that Hill will get his chances, the 49ers defender will need to limit the wideout's yards after the catch with sound tackling.
Ward has yet to miss a tackle this season, per PFF. The undrafted free agent has allowed 30 receptions on 52 attempts (57.7 percent) for 376 yards and just one receiving touchdown through 11 games.
RB Christian McCaffrey
On Thursday, the All-Pro running back shared that he was feeling good after “dodging a bullet” with a knee irritation earlier in the week. After missing the team’s Wednesday practice, McCaffrey participated full speed the remainder of the week in preparation for Sunday’s contest.
While the Dolphins' offense is one of the best in the league, their defense is what McCaffrey and the rest of the 49ers' offense can take advantage of. Edge rushers Melvin Ingram and Jaelan Philips have 11 sacks combined, but according to PFF, the tandem also has missed 15 total tackles.
If coach Kyle Shanahan can set up McCaffrey for outside zone runs effectively, the 49ers' offense could take advantage.
TE George Kittle
The Dolphins' defense allows the second most receptions to tight ends in the NFL with an average of 6.3 per game. Kittle is primed to have a breakout game, only notching two games this season with six or more receptions.
After missing the first two contests of the 2022 NFL season, Kittle has been healthy and waiting for his opportunity to take advantage of a defense that has racked up 95 missed tackles on the season. The 49ers' defense, for comparison, has missed only 58 tackles through their 11 games.
DL Arik Armstead
After missing the past seven games while recovering from plantar fasciitis and a hairline fracture in his ankle, Armstead is excited to get back on the field Sunday. Not only is he a key in the 49ers' run defense but his sheer size alone will draw attention away from his fellow linemen in their pursuit of Tagovailoa.
“I’m excited just to get back regardless of who we are playing,” Armstead said. “I missed a lot of time. It’s going to be a fun game, high-powered offense. A lot of eyes are going to be on this game, two top teams in the league, so it’s going to be a lot of fun playing in this one.”
Armstead’s 6-foot-7 stature and long reach also could limit Tagovailoa's ability to see the field. The Dolphins quarterback is six inches shorter than the lineman, so his downfield vision could be obstructed.
Armstead could be on a limited snap count for his return, but the Dolphins being able to account for everyone on the 49ers front is a sizable undertaking.
DE Nick Bosa
On Friday, the Dolphins ruled out right tackle Austin Jackson with an ankle injury, and Pro Bowl left tackle Terron Armstead is doubtful to play with toe and pectoral injuries. Bosa should not only reap the benefits of playing opposite backup left tackle Greg Little but also Brandon Shell on the right side.
Bosa, who was just named NFC Defensive Player of the Month for November, also could take advantage of Armstead's return, who will clog up running lanes in the middle of the field with just his presence alone.
While Tagovailoa is a mobile quarterback, he has only registered 18 carries for 35 yards through his nine appearances. Raheem Mostert (543 yards) and Jeff Wilson Jr. (209) lead the team in rushing yards. Bosa should have plenty of pass rush opportunities on Sunday.