The Dolphins were unable to overcome a handful of special teams errors and an uneven fourth quarter on Sunday, losing to the NFC West-leading San Francisco 49ers, 27-13.
Just as they had the previous week against New England, the Dolphins stayed with the 49ers well into the fourth quarter, but they couldn’t come up with a game-tying TD drive late in the game.
Here are my four key takeaways from Sunday’s 27-13 loss in San Francisco:
- The Gift That Keeps On Giving: If the Miami Dolphins are ever going to take the next step to become one of the league’s consistently elite teams, they cannot continue to make mistakes that directly turn into points. Just like the New England game, when a special teams blunder set up Tom Brady and Co. at the 12-yard line, a mishap in the return game — Marcus Thigpen’s costly fumble — handed Colin Kaepernick and San Francisco’s offense a golden opportunity, resulting in a quick scoring drive that was capped of by a 1-yard Frank Gore touchdown drive. In both cases, those plays were game changers, in my opinion. The Dolphins’ record is 5-8 — and that’s a reality. But those numbers could very easily be reversed if not for a handful of self-inflicted mistakes. The margin of error in the NFL is just too slim to consistently give teams points off of turnovers.
- Wake and Co.: All the attention heading into Sunday’s game was on San Francisco defensive end Aldon Smith, and rightfully so, as he chases Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record–he’s now just three sacks shy of tying Strahan’s mark. Cam Wake’s performance showed why he, too, is one of the premier pass rushers in the entire league, however. Wake single-handedly disrupted the 49ers offense, putting pressure on Kaepernick all day long. He finished with three sacks, pushing his season total to 14, which ties the career-best mark he set in 2010. Head Coach Joe Philbin is looking for more playmakers on both sides of the ball, players that can turn the tide by themselves. Between Wake, Reshad Jones and Karlos Dansby, the Dolphins have had some consistent game-breakers; they’re efforts on Sunday were almost enough to change the outcome of the game. Dansby led the team with 12 tackles (2 TFL); Wake, of course, ended with the aforementioned three sacks and a forced fumble; Jones once again played a strong game in the back end of the defense, chipping in with eight tackles.
- Fourth Quarter Woes: For a majority of the season, the Dolphins have put themselves in a recurring position: They have a chance to win games in the fourth quarter. Coach Philbin has said the last two weeks that his team had a chance to beat quality opponents (San Francisco and New England) if the played well enough in the fourth quarter. After a Ryan Tannehill 3-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Fasano, Miami was only trailing by seven points midway through the final period. The defense then did its part, forcing a quick three-and-out, which gave the football back to the offense with 5:35 left in the game. Everyone knows what followed, with five straight incompletions ending a realistic chance of winning. It was another example of going toe-to-toe with a contender only to have things go the other way in the fourth quarter. Hopefully, though, this team will seize some late-game opportunities and be more efficient down the stretch.
- Need More Precision: When you win, things aren’t always as good as they seem; when you lose, things aren’t always as bad, either. After Sunday’s loss to the 49ers, there are some things that need to be tightened up. Ryan Tannehill’s overall numbers weren’t where he would like them to be, but his efficiency in the first half — 10-of-14 for 104 yards — led me to believe it would carry over into the second half. That didn’t happen, of course, but the responsibility is shared; it wasn’t entirely on the rookie quarterback. A lack of a clean pocket and the Dolphins receivers’ inability to create separation and get open contributed as well. As a team, the Dolphins need to play with more precision and execution as the game gets into the second half, because most of their games have come down to the final few possessions. That’s what separates average teams from playoff teams.