Running against the San Francisco 49ers is tough. Passing isn't any easier. And scoring is a huge…
49ers vs. Dolphins: Thumbs up and thumbs down
Thumbs up: Gore called Kaepernick "Mr. Everything" after that game-clinching touchdown jaunt, and it was an explosive finish for a rather pedestrian day by the San Francisco offense as Kaepernick raced past the final Miami defender at the 25-yard line and was looking back to find nobody but teammate Delanie Walker around him as he strolled the final distance to his fifth rushing TD of the season. The 50-yard play matched the longest run ever by a 49ers quarterback – a record Kaepernick set last week against the Rams. And that, folks, is why Kaepernick is your new 49ers starting quarterback.
Thumbs up: The real Mr. Everything for the 49ers, however, remains the incomparable Mr. Gore, who had a few of the biggest offensive plays of the day. Gore powered into the end zone for the 50th rushing touchdown of his career early in the third quarter, ending San Francisco's six-quarter drought without a touchdown. That tied Joe Perry and Roger Craig for the franchise career record for rushing touchdowns, and Gore almost had another when his 19-yard burst to the goal line on the first play of the fourth quarter set up Anthony Dixon's one-yard scoring plunge on the next snap. Gore had a tackle-breaking 19-yard reception earlier in that drive to push the Niners into Miami territory, and he led the 49ers with 63 yards rushing to push past the 1,000-yard barrier for the franchise-record sixth time in his distinguished eight-year career.
Thumbs up: On the first play of his NFL career, LaMichael James showed no hesitation taking the opening kickoff eight yards deep in the end zone and bringing it out with youthful fervor. James looked like the roadrunner as he zipped up the middle field and almost broke through the first wave of defenders, getting tripped up at the 26-yard line for a 34-yard gain on his first big-league return.
Thumbs up: James impressed on his first carry at running back, too, scooting around the left edge for a 10-yard run and turning a second-and-long situation into a first down to keep the Niners' first scoring drive moving deep in their own territory. James moved the 49ers into Miami territory on his second carry, when he gained four yards and drew a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness after being hit late after he was tackled.
Thumbs up: Perhaps the most promising element of James' debut was the Kendall Hunter-like complement to Gore he added to an offense that was obviously lacking Hunter's change-of-pace outside speed last week in St. Louis. Gore made a point to say that James helped keep him fresh, particularly in the fourth quarter, and the team's second-round draft pick finished with 30 yards rushing on eight carries and also had a key 15-yard reception late in the second quarter that led to a David Akers field goal three seconds before halftime that put the 49ers ahead to stay.
Thumbs down: The way the 49ers handled the final minute of the half after James' catch took them to the Miami 11, however, was a totally botched effort to get in the end zone. Kaepernick was sacked on first down, James lost two yards on second down, and with a timeout still remaining, Kaepernick took the next snap with only eight seconds left in the half and had to rush a throw-away incompletion to the sideline just to make sure there was still three seconds left on the clock for Akers to get a shot at three points.
Thumbs down: And what's with these slow starts at home? The last time the 49ers played at Candlestick Park, they were pushed around early and often by the St. Louis Rams and trailed 14-0 at the end of the first quarter. This time, the 49ers were out-gained by the Dolphins 101-44 in total yards in the first quarter before finally waking up.
Thumbs up: Welcome to the NFL, Jonathan Martin. The rookie offensive tackle was put on his back by Aldon Smith in what had to be one of the most impressive sacks so far in Smith's young career. Smith slammed into Martin off the snap with overpowering burst, and Martin fell backwards and downwards as though he'd taken a heavyweight knockout punch. While running over Martin, Smith pushed Martin into Ryan Tannehill while taking down the Miami quarterback for the first of his two sacks on the day. "He got me on that bull rush pretty good," Martin admitted afterwards. "There is a reason why he is one of the best pass rushers in the league."
Thumbs up: You can pretty much take "one of" out of the previous sentence above. Smith, in just his second season, continues to assert himself as the premier pass rusher in the NFL, taking down Tannehill twice for both of San Francisco's sacks. That raised Smith's league-leading total to a whopping 19½ sacks, a new franchise record, and left him needing just three sacks in San Francisco's final three games to match Michael Strahan's NFL record of 22½.
Thumbs down: Brandon Jacobs went to twitter again Saturday to complain about his lack of playing time with the 49ers, saying he is "on this team rotting away," among other things. That was probably after Jacobs found out he would be inactive for Sunday's game – the 11th time in 13 games Jacobs has been inactive this season. That probably wasn't a good move by Jacobs, who may not find many more active opportunities after the way James played. That is, if Jacobs isn't shown the door first by coach Jim Harbaugh the way Braylon Edwards was in a similar situation last December.
Thumbs up: It was good to see the 49ers come out throwing to Delanie Walker for a 20-yard gain on the game's first play after Walker dropped what could have been the game-winning touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter last week at St. Louis. Kaepernick and Walker seem to work well together after practicing with the second-unit offense much of the past two seasons before Kaepernick was elevated to a starting role.
Thumbs down: The 49ers did a poor job of handling Miami's prime defensive weapon, Cameron Wake, who caused the San Francisco offense a lot of problems early in the game. Wake stripped Kaepernick of the ball to thwart San Francisco's game-opening drive and sacked him three times in the first half alone.
Thumbs down: Right tackle Anthony Davis, who has made strides in pass coverage this year – the weakness in his game – looked slow and like a rookie again when Wake blew by him and around the edge on one of those sacks.
Thumbs up: Another day, another couple of Chris Culliver breakups on deep passes while in man coverage on deep sideline routes. No wonder the Niners are comfortable leaving Culliver alone on the edge when he's in games as a third cornerback. "He made some big-time breakups," coach Jim Harbaugh said after Culliver was credited with a game-high three passes defensed.
Thumbs down: Battling injuries during the week, starting right cornerback Tarell Brown wasn't nearly as solid when he was alone on receivers in base defensive packages. Brown got a little too grabby in coverage, twice getting flagged when he was manned up on his edge, once for holding and once for illegal use of hands, giving the Dolphins a first down on both plays. The second penalty helped Miami down the field on its only touchdown drive.
Thumbs up: Michael Crabtree continued his big-time play as a go-to receiver, matching his career-high with nine receptions to go with his game-high 93 yards receiving. Crabtree is in the midst of one of the best stretches of his career with 16 receptions for 194 yards in San Francisco's past two games.
Thumbs down: A false-start penalty on guard Alex Boone followed by a delay-of-game penalty before the Niners could get off their next stop looked like an offense that was very much out of sync while San Francisco was stalling on its second drive of the game. The Niners never really got that offense going until their three-touchdown second half.
Thumbs up: That was a nice little flea-flicker the 49ers threw at the Dolphins, and it very easily could have gone for a long touchdown as Kaepernick was on the money to Randy Moss in the end zone from 53 yards out. Moss got both hands on the ball but couldn't hold onto it, mainly because one of his arms was clearly being held by a Miami defender without a penalty being called.
Thumbs down: Harbaugh said after the game that DeMarcus Dobbs "might have dodged a bullet," but the knee injury the second-year player sustained in the second quarter looked pretty bad. Dobbs' right leg was suspended in the air while he was outstretched on the ground on a tackle attempt, and his knee was wrenched in ugly fashion as it was hit by another player in the scrum. "He may miss some time as well," Harbaugh added.
Thumbs up: Special-teamer supreme C.J. Spillman displayed great awareness after a 55-yard punt by Andy Lee when Spillman raced down the field and then took away the football from Marcus Thigpen, one of the NFL's top return specialists this year, after Thigpen dropped the ball while attempting to field it at the San Francisco 9-yard line. The fumble recovery gave the momentum back to the 49ers after their offense had gone three-and-out on its first possession of the second half, and Gore scored two plays later to give San Francisco its first double-digit lead.
Thumbs up: On the play preceding that touchdown, Anthony Dixon swept the left side and launched his body from the 6-yard-line, almost scoring after his dive through the air netted an extra five yards to set up Gore's 1-yard scoring plunge. Dixon, getting more playing time now with Hunter out and Jacobs inactive, also scored his second touchdown of the season on a 1-yard plunge in the fourth quarter that was set up by Gore's 19-yard burst.
Thumbs up: Patrick Willis, Donte Whitner and Ahmad Brooks met together simultaneously for a wicked three-layer sandwich hit on Davone Bess after the receiver caught a pass over the middle in the third quarter, popping the ball loose and five yards backward before the Dolphins were able to pounce on the fumble.
Thumbs up: Whitner was Mr. Mean again on the very next play when he collided with Reggie Bush after a completion near the sideline, picked up Bush, then flipped him over and body-slammed the Miami back to the ground. "We just want to be physical any way we can," Whitner said. "When you're physical as a defense, it gives the offense something else to think about."
Thumbs up: And the Dolphins no doubt had plenty to think about throughout this afternoon as the 49ers assembled another rock'em, sock'em defensive effort that was a winning performance all the way on a day when the San Francisco offense wasn't at its best. With middle linebackers Willis and NaVorro Bowman combining for 14 tackles and their own collection of rattling hits, the 49ers limited Miami to just 227 total yards and forced the Dolphins to turn the ball over on downs on each of their final two possessions of the game.
Thumbs up: And finally, there's nothing like being home in December for the 49ers, who extended their home winning streak in December games to 10, a franchise record. It's also the second-longest active streak in the NFL to the 19-game streak currently owned by the New England Patriots. The 49ers get an opportunity to snap that streak next week when they travel to play a huge inter-conference showdown with the Patriots that promises to be one of the biggest tests of the season.
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