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Did it work? Robert Saleh’s gameplan against Miami last year

NFL: Miami Dolphins at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Over the next few weeks, we’re going reviewing the games between the 49ers and the Jets’ AFC East rivals in 2020 to see what we can learn about Robert Saleh’s approach to countering these teams, continuing today with a look at the 49ers-Miami game.

Saleh was obviously the 49ers’ defensive coordinator and playcaller in 2020, so we’ll mostly focus on the defensive side of the ball. However, he also brought 49ers passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur and offensive line coach John Benton with him to the Jets. LaFleur will be the offensive coordinator in 2020 and his system is expected to be similar to that of the 49ers. We’ll therefore also touch on some of the offensive aspects of the gameplans against these teams.

The 49ers met Miami in week five last year. At the time, Miami were 1-3 and the 49ers were 2-2. As was the case in the 49ers-Patriots game, San Francisco was dealing with a lot of injury issues.

San Francisco had more defensive talent on hand than they would in the Patriots game a few weeks later. Both starting safeties (Jimmy Ward and Jaquiski Tartt) were available and linebacker Kwon Alexander also played, but all three missed the New England game two weeks later. The 49ers were already without Richard Sherman and three of the four starting defensive linemen, including Nick Bosa.

As we saw in our previous update, Saleh was able to overcome these absences in New England. However, there was another personnel crisis that proved too difficult to get past in the Miami game.

No matter what your gameplan is, you’re only as good as your weakest link and the 49ers found themselves in a situation where one of their defensive starters was completely overmatched in the first half.

Starter Ahkello Witherspoon was dealing with a hamstring injury and, although he was active, the plan was only to use him in an emergency. Starting in his place was Brian Allen, a former fifth round pick just activated off the practice squad and who had only ever played on special teams at the NFL level.

After a quick 49ers three-and-out, the very first offensive snap for the Dolphins was a sign of things to come as they threw deep to Preston Wilson who went up and over Allen for a 47-yard catch. Allen was then flagged for a horse collar tackle a few plays later, setting up Miami’s first touchdown.

The next San Francisco drive ended when they got stuffed on 4th-and-1 with Allen giving up another big play on a back shoulder throw to set up Miami’s second touchdown.

San Francisco cut it to 14-7 on their next drive, but then Allen gave up another easy first down, then was called for pass interference on a deep ball and finally was beaten for this score.

After this, they gave up on Allen and used Witherspoon for the rest of the game anyway. Allen didn’t play again all season and was released shortly afterwards.

This adjustment worked, as Witherspoon fared a lot better despite his injury. However, Ryan Fitzpatrick ended up with 350 yards and had already built a big first half lead. It’s difficult to see how else they could have handled the situation short of using a safety to double-team over the top.

The main difference in terms of the defensive gameplan for this game compared to the one employed against New England a few weeks later was that the front four ran a lot more stunts and inside moves with generating quick pressure being more of a priority than keeping the quarterback contained in the pocket.

To some extent, this was successful. Fitzpatrick got rid of the ball on average within 2.15 seconds, which was 0.4 seconds faster than the 49ers’ quarterbacks.

This should take the pressure off the cornerbacks by not forcing them to have to stay with their man for too long. However, if you can just throw it up and the cornerback is overmatched, that torpedoes the gameplan. It also made the fact that they fared well against the run - holding Miami to less than three yards per carry - essentially irrelevant.

Saleh dialed up an A-gap blitz that got to Fitzpatrick immediately on third down on one of the first quarter touchdown drives but he was ready to get rid of it quickly and take the hit (which was called as roughing the passer anyway).

Personnel deficiencies are tough enough to overcome but there’s also nothing a coach can do about blown assignments. This 70-yard play allowed the Dolphins to break the game open in the second quarter as neither the safety nor the slot cornerback dropped deep enough.

It didn’t help matters that the 49ers offense didn’t have a good day either. They ran the ball well, but quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was playing with a sprained ankle and ended up getting benched at halftime as Kyle Shanahan determined that it was affecting his performance.

This was most apparent on the first of his two first half interceptions. They sent a running back deep against a linebacker, but Garoppolo’s pass was woefully underthrown and tailed off too far to the inside so the safety was able to get over and pick it off.

So...did it work? Clearly not, because Miami led 30-7 by halftime and went on to win 43-17. There were aspects of the gameplan that worked - they forced Fitzpatrick to get rid of the ball quickly, held Miami to 4-for-12 on third downs and stopped the run well.

Should we be concerned that Saleh was outschemed by the Miami coaches? Arguably not, because most of the biggest issues with the performance had more to do with personnel than scheme.

What this does illustrate is how the Jets need to upgrade their defensive personnel, especially at cornerback. Otherwise, Saleh’s gameplan is likely to be undermined as it was here.