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Dolphins offense vs. 49ers defense: If San Francisco can't stop Mike McDaniel's attack, can anyone?

The Miami Dolphins' high-octane offense has taken the league by storm in Mike McDaniel's first season as head coach, with the attack really hitting its stride over the past month.

But this weekend brings the Fins' toughest test to date: a road trip to face McDaniel's longtime mentor, Kyle Shanahan, and his San Francisco 49ers, who boast the NFL's top defense under rising coordinator DeMeco Ryans.

The Dolphins have scored at least 30 points in each of their last four games, but the competition has been subpar, as three of their last four opponents -- the Lions, Browns and Bears -- are the bottom three defenses in the league this season by expected points added per play. Miami now faces a gauntlet of difficult opponents to finish the season, including three high-leverage divisional games that will have major bearing on the AFC East race and playoff seeding. That stretch starts with McDaniel's homecoming -- and against perhaps one of the only teams equipped to stall his offensive juggernaut. The 49ers' defense is on a similar streak against lesser opponents. The unit hasn't allowed a single point in the second half of a game since Week 7.

So what happens when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object?

Let's start by examining the Dolphins' offense. The Shanahan DNA is readily apparent throughout McDaniel's scheme: misdirection, condensed formations, fullback utilization and in-breaking routes. But the engine that powers this offense is the free real estate that exists over the middle of the field. Learning under Shanahan's tutelage, McDaniel knows as well as anyone that the best area to attack for explosive plays is the intermediate middle of the field -- located 10 to 20 yards past the line of scrimmage and in the middle third horizontally -- which has been the most efficient area to target over the Next Gen Stats era (since 2016).

Table inside Article
Target Values (since 2016) Left EPA Middle EPA Right EPA Left Success Rate Middle Success Rate Right Success Rate
Deep (20+ yards) +0.27 +0.41 +0.34 33.2% 36.9% 33.4%
Intermediate (10-19 yards) +0.33 +0.45 +0.26 52.9% 59.4% 50.8%
Short (0-9 yards) +0.12 +0.14 +0.07 53.2% 55.2% 51.7%
Behind LOS -0.08 -0.06 -0.13 40.9% 42.1% 38.2%

The Shanahan coaching tree has exploited this golden middle for years, but McDaniel -- armed with what might be the quickest wide receiver duo the league has ever seen -- has taken it to new heights. No receiver has averaged a faster top speed within the first three seconds of his route than Tyreek Hill (15.46 mph) or Jaylen Waddle (15.40 mph) this season (min. 200 routes). Defenses are terrified to man up against this pair of burners, as the Dolphins have faced a league-low 17 percent man-coverage rate. Opponents have devoted resources to make sure they don't get beat over the top, too, with Miami encountering split-safety coverages on 50 percent of pass plays this season, second-highest in the NFL.

The compounding effect of supreme talent forcing defenses to be predictable has given McDaniel the perfect recipe to create open windows downfield for a quarterback who lacks the arm strength to create them on his own. Tua Tagovailoa's production has taken a leap forward this season, with the third-year QB averaging a league-high +0.35 expected points added per dropback. While Tua deserves credit for operating on time and hitting his receivers in stride, receiving talent and scheme have played a major factor in his improvement.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the aforementioned golden middle, where over half of Tagovailoa's passing EPA has been generated this season. The Dolphins QB has 38 completions when throwing to the intermediate middle this season, a whopping 16 more than any other quarterback -- and that's despite Tua missing two whole games. Hill and Waddle's burst and ability to separate have been key to Tagovailoa's success in this area, allowing the quarterback to sling it as soon as he hits the back of his drop.

Table inside Article
On Passes to Intermediate Middle Time to Throw Open Throws Completions Yards Pass EPA
Tua Tagovailoa 2.49 seconds 29 38 718 +57.3
Next-closest QB 2.63 seconds (Andy Dalton) 16 (Tom Brady) 22 (Kirk Cousins) 398 (Patrick Mahomes) +22.5 (Cousins)

It is only fitting that McDaniel's biggest test of his young career comes against his old colleagues and their vaunted defense. Ryans, San Francisco's second-year defensive coordinator, is intimately aware of what makes the Shanahan offense tick, having spent his first six seasons as a player under Gary Kubiak and his entire six-year coaching career under Kyle Shanahan. Ryans' on-field conduit is Fred Warner; the two have been attached at the hip since Warner was selected in the third round of the 2018 draft, which also was Ryans' first season as San Francisco's linebackers coach. Warner has been a linchpin amidst a defense loaded with talent, playing 95 percent of the 49ers' defensive snaps over the last five seasons. And it's been his on-field presence more than anything that has allowed Ryans (and Robert Saleh before him) to completely erase that coveted intermediate middle area.


Since Warner arrived in San Francisco, opposing quarterbacks have had as much trouble finding affordable real estate as Bay Area residents themselves. The 49ers have allowed just 71 completions to the intermediate middle over the last five seasons, 15 fewer than any other defense. When passers have dared to throw to the golden middle against the Warner-led defense, the going's been tough. The 49ers have forced the lowest expected completion percentage (56.5 percent) to the intermediate middle since 2018, the only defense under 58.0 percent.

Suffice to say, the 49ers' defense presents a nightmare matchup for the Dolphins' offense. It is doubtful that Miami's 28th-ranked rushing attack will provide any breathing room against a stout San Francisco front. To make matters worse, the Dolphins could be down both starting offensive tackles against one of the best defensive lines in the league. Tagovailoa will do his best to dull the pass rush by getting rid of the ball quickly, but the 49ers average the third-quickest pass-rush get-off from the edge this season (0.83 seconds). If the 49ers can disrupt Waddle and Hill at the beginning of their routes and clog up the windows Tagovailoa is used to seeing open, this freight train of an offense could be derailed fast.

Adaptability is one of the most essential abilities for a coach to possess in this league. If you can't evolve, you won't last long. McDaniel is acutely aware of the 49ers' defensive philosophy and surely will have some adjustments up his sleeve. How will McDaniel counterpunch now that the training wheels are off? If the Dolphins' offense is able to stay on track and continue to create explosive plays in this matchup, the rest of the NFL will be put on notice.

Follow Keegan Abdoo on Twitter.

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