Much of the attention around the mouth-watering Week 13 clash between the 8-3 Miami Dolphins and the 7-4 San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium will be focused on the array of weapons both teams possess. Yet this game between two contenders to go deep into the playoffs is more likely to be decided in the trenches.
With Tyreek Hill and Jayden Waddle on one side and Deebo Samuel, Christian McCaffrey — who is nursing a knee injury — Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle on the other, these are two teams stacked with offensive firepower.
Yet both teams’ ability to make the most of their explosive weaponry will obviously hinge heavily on how they pass protect.
For the 49ers, they will be challenged by a pass rush that has improved since Bradley Chubb was infused into Miami’s front seven in a blockbuster move at the trade deadline, while the Dolphins will receive a severe test from a defense that is the best in the NFL by a plethora of metrics and is dependent on its fearsome front getting home consistently with four pass rushers.
Miami’s success in withstanding the San Francisco defensive line will be boosted if left tackle Terron Armstead is available to play.
Armstead suffered a strained pectoral in the Dolphins’ blowout win over the Houston Texans last week and had been expected to miss some time. However, per The Miami Herald, head coach Mike McDaniel — who was the offensive coordinator for the 49ers last season — did not rule out Armstead playing against San Francisco.
“Terron Armstead continues to impress me as an individual, a professional and a teammate,” McDaniel said. “I can tell you one thing that I’m certain of: If there’s a way that he can be on the field and play in December against a playoff team, he lives for that moment. And as long as there’s nothing keeping him from hurting his team or himself, he’ll be out there. But you can rest assured that he’ll do everything possible. And if he’s unable to go, it’ll be because it would put himself and his teammates in harm’s way.”
Armstead being able to play would be hugely significant for an offensive line that will likely be missing right tackle Austin Jackson because of an ankle injury.
Regardless of whether Armstead is available, the Dolphins’ hopes of keeping the 49er defensive line at bay could be dented by the return of his namesake.
San Francisco defensive tackle Arik Armstead returned to practice last week, though he did not play in the shutout win over the New Orleans Saints, and was limited in practice on Wednesday.
He is the Niners’ best interior defensive lineman and, while San Francisco has thrived on defense thanks in part to the efforts of defensive tackles Kevin Givens and Hassan Ridgeway in the absence of the 2015 first-round pick, his first appearance in the lineup since the Week 4 win over the Los Angeles Rams would greatly increase San Francisco’s interior pass-rush threat.
Arik Armstead registered 52 pressures last year, per Pro Football Focus, and his return would mean the Niners would not have to rely as heavily on the likes of Charles Omenihu, who is dealing with a knee issue, and rookie Drake Jackson moving in from the edge on pass-rush downs. It would also solidify a run defense that is allowing the fewest yards per rush in the NFL (3.32).
Running the ball could therefore be extremely difficult for the Dolphins. The speed with which Tua Tagovailoa delivers the ball — his time to throw of 2.6 seconds is the sixth-fastest in the NFL this season, according to NextGen Stats — is likely to influence how Miami’s passing game fares, but the status of the two Armsteads will also go a long way to determining whether San Francisco’s vaunted pass rush can be successful in slowing it down.