49ers-Dolphins: 5 burning questions heading into Sunday's Week 5 matchup
The Legendary Revenge Tour, as most 49ers' players dubbed the 2020 season has been off to a rocky start, facing injuries at practically every position and losing two one-possession games late in the fourth quarter.
With a gauntlet schedule commencing in Week 6, this upcoming contest on Sunday vs. Dolphins suddenly turns into a must-win game for the 49ers. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo returns and brings a huge boost to the team, while running back Raheem Mostert is questionable after missing the last few weeks with a knee sprain.
Brian Flores' Dolphins are the 49ers' first opponent to come into the matchup with a win, but lost a tight contest to the Seahawks at home last week.
1. What are the expectations for Jimmy Garoppolo on Sunday coming off of the high-ankle sprain?
Normally, high-ankle sprains are two-to-four week injuries, but Garoppolo's returning two-and-a-half weeks after his injury occurred in New York. He was limited in practice on Wednesday and Thursday, but was a full participant on Friday.
Kyle Shanahan was confident in Garoppolo's ability to move around the pocket and watching a few practice videos the team has released over the past couple days, I also have the same confidence in the 49ers' signal caller to not be hindered by his ailment.
Miami comes into the game with the 28th-ranked passing defense, per Football Outsiders' DVOA. They tout talented corners in Byron Jones and Xavien Howard, but have struggled to contain quarterbacks Josh Allen and Russell Wilson in back-to-back weeks.
Given the depth at receiver and tight end for the 49ers all of a sudden, Garoppolo should be more than equipped to have a successful afternoon through the air if his offensive line can hold up in pass-protection longer than they have the last two weeks.
2. Will Ryan Fitzpatrick's mobility be an issue? Or can the 49ers' defensive line contain the 37-year old quarterback?
When you think of a 37-year old quarterback, you immediately imagine Tom Brady or Phillip Rivers -- players who struggle to to move in the pocket and are statues behind their offensive line. But Fitzpatrick is sneaky athletic, can evade defenses and extend plays with his legs, as evidenced by his 115 rushing yards this season.
San Francisco's defensive line has struggled to contain athletic, mobile quarterbacks who can evade their rush. Kris Kocurek's coaching style has their defensive ends rush up the field aggressively, but that leaves them liable to quarterbacks who can escape the pocket.
Given the fact that the defense is under heavy scrutiny for allowing mobile quarterbacks to thrive, I think the 49ers clean up their communication and contain Fitzpatrick's rushing. One of the strategies that they will use is to "scrape" and send the defensive end at the running back, with a linebacker coming over the top to cover the quarterback.
3. How will the 49ers' cornerbacks matchup against Miami's receiving corps?
This is probably keeping defensive coordinator Robert Saleh up at night this week, but he will be without Richard Sherman, Emmanuel Moseley and K'Waun Williams -- the starting trio in the Super Bowl last season.
Instead, Saleh will be rolling out Jason Verrett, Ahkello Witherspoon and Jamar Taylor as the starting cornerbacks instead against a trio of Devante Parker, Preston Williams and Jakeem Grant. Unlike the Eagles or Giants, who don't have any depth or talent at receiver with their injuries, the Dolphins can really threaten the seams of the 49ers' pass defense.
For the 49ers to be successful against the Dolphins' passing offense, which ranks 22nd per DVOA, they will need the depleted pass rush to get home against Miami's battered offensive line, which will be without rookie tackle Austin Jackson.
San Francisco's Cover-3 defense has been stellar at limiting explosive plays once again this season and I don't think Miami has enough juice on offense to methodically drive down the field and put up enough points to overcome the 49ers' offense.
4. What is the 49ers' X-factor on Sunday?
The 49ers bend-not-break defense has to be stellar again on Sunday. San Francisco ranks 3rd in the NFL in touchdowns allowed per drive, while they ranked 20th in field goals allowed per drive. They are a Top-7 red-zone defense and that'll need to be the case again on Sunday.
Flores' Dolphins do a good job of moving the ball between the 20-yard lines, but struggled in the red zone last week against the Seahawks' defense, going 1-of-3 and coming away with field goals, rather than touchdowns.
I think San Francisco's defense is bound to regress as they play better competition, but they'll have to be stout in the red zone, which they've been so far this season.
5. Who wins, and why?
Jimmy Garoppolo's back. Raheem Mostert may be back. The 49ers haven't lost two-straight games in which Garoppolo is the healthy starting quarterback.
After an embarrassing loss on National TV last week, I think the 49ers come out with a vengeance this week. At 2-2, they're well aware how much they need this win, especially with really difficult competition coming up over the next seven weeks.
With that said, I think the 49ers cover the nine-point spread and put the thumping on the Dolphins.
(Akash Anavarathan covers the 49ers for Fourth and Nine, follow him on Twitter @akashanav)
(Cover Image via Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)