After watching a slew of playoff-bound teams battle it out on Thanksgiving day, the San Francisco 49ers have to be thankful that the Miami Dolphins give the team a decent chance to earn an elusive second win.
The strategy for both teams on Sunday will be simple: Run the ball hard and often.
For Miami, the team will continue to rely heavily on the breakout running back Jay Ajayi, who has been on a tear since assuming full control of the Miami backfield with the retirement of Arian Foster.
The Dolphins have begun to rely on Ajayi more heavily due to the inconsistency of Ryan Tannehill throughout the season. Since week 6, Ajayi has been averaging 22 touches a game, rushing for 685 yards and four touchdowns in that span.
He has managed these numbers against top-ranked rushing defenses like the Steelers, Chargers, Rams and the Jets. After facing such formidable fronts, Ajayi has likely had a match with the league’s bottom-ranked run defense circled on his calendar.
But the 49ers look to give Miami a taste of their own medicine with their own offensive star, running back Carlos Hyde.
Hyde failed to reach the end zone last weekend against New England while rushing 19 times for 86 yards. But, most importantly, the physical back looked healthy while fighting for extra yardage and shaking off tacklers after missing a pair of games with a shoulder injury.
Hyde’s health came at a good time for the third-year back who is looking to reinvigorate his season, as the only team’s with worse run defense in the NFL are the Cleveland Browns and- you guessed it- the San Francisco 49ers.
On Monday, head coach Chip Kelly stated that Hyde was the main focus of what the team plans to do offensively. The problem with that statement, as I pointed out here, is that teams with a competent run defense can easily shut down the 49ers’ offense just by taking away Hyde.
From there, the chips (pun) fall like dominoes, and the 49ers’ entire offense stalls when they have to rely on a pass-heavy approach like we’ve seen all season long in the second half of games.
But with a match against a Miami team that is allowing an average of 4.3 yards per carry, the 49ers may just be able to keep Hyde in the mix through four quarters, allowing Kelly to keep his playbook open, and to keep the Dolphins’ defense honest with a mix of power runs, play-action passes and the occasional deep ball to a healthy Torrey Smith.
Which makes the X-factor in this contest the passing game for both sides.
It’s hard to say who has the edge here. Miami has a clearly more talented receiving corp, with the likes of Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker leading the way. But as previously mentioned, Tannehill can be a hit-or-miss quarterback on any given Sunday.
Tannehill has been solid during the Dolphins’ five-game win-streak, however, throwing for just over 1,000 yards with six touchdowns and just one interception during that span. But the dark side of Tannehill can still rear its ugly head, with poorly thrown balls and bad reads that plagued him early on in the season.
Throw in a pair of injured linemen in tackle Branden Albert and center Mike Pouncey, and the 49ers may actually be able to pressure Tannehill into more bad throws on Sunday.
But just like the Dolphins’ signal caller, the 49ers’ own Colin Kaepernick has been heating up with more consistent play lately.
Since the Week 8 bye, Kaepernick has thrown for at least 200-yards and a touchdown in three straight games. But what separates Kaepernick from his competition on Sunday is his ability to spread the field with his legs.
In a game that is going to come down to run defense, Kaepernick’s ability to break free for long gains can give the 49ers a real edge in Sunday’s contest. Kaepernick has averaged 52.2 yards per game throughout his five starts, with one touchdown against Arizona as well.
One of Kaepernick’s hindrance to his own cause has been poor decisions while running the zone-read. When Kaepernick breaks off big gains, most of them come from scrambles out of the pocket on broken plays instead of designed handoffs.
But his ability to see the field is getting better with each game, and if he and Hyde can run an effective zone-read scheme against Miami’s soft run defense, then the 49ers have an actual chance of taking this game against a streaking Dolphins team.
But, like all things having to do with the 49ers, go into the game with cautious optimism.
Shawn Whelchel is SFBay’s San Francisco 49ers beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @ShawnWhelchel on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of 49ers football.