DeMeco Ryans Was the 49ers Key Against Impressive Dolphins Offense

DeMeco Ryans is the best defensive coordinator in the NFL, and he caused Tua Tagovailoa's worst game of the season.

The San Francisco 49ers bested the Miami Dolphins 33-17 with a backup quarterback for over three quarters of the game, and many fans chalked it up to a bad day at the office for Tua Tagovailoa. That isn’t easy to refute. But while most understand Tua had an off day, many are missing why he had such a bad day at the office. And that is thanks to DeMeco Ryans.

Tua’s Bad Day By the Numbers

We need to get something out of the way quickly. What Tua did on third down, and particularly 3rd-and-6+, was otherworldly. Before Sunday, Tagovailoa was blistering the league. Ryans, however, had an answer, but we’ll get there when the time is right.

All statistics are courtesy of Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise noted. 

Completion rate: 75.6% (first)
Y/A: 12.4 (second)
ANY/A: 13.7 (first)
Sack rate: 4.1% (second)
QB rating: 153.8 (first)
ADOT: 11.2 (fourth)
Points Above Average/Play: 0.581 (first)
Positive EPA rate: 59.6% (first)

Unsurprisingly, Patrick Mahomes had the second-highest ANY/A at 12.4. You’d need a skydiving certification to find third place, Joe Burrow at 8.5.

Tua was on an unbelievable pace. He’d built such a cushion that even the horrific outing against San Francisco did little to hurt his standing amongst his peers.

Over the first 12 weeks, Tua ranked first in catchable pass rate at 91.1%. Meanwhile, his on-target rate (76.2%) ranked 17th out of the 32 NFL QBs with at least 145 attempts. In essence, Tua had been more generally accurate than he’d been pinpoint accurate. But with the space his receivers usually afford him, generally accurate is all that’s needed.

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On Sunday, 88% of Tua’s attempts were deemed catchable, but only 60% were on target. Only Marcus Mariota had a worse week in on-target percentage. But nobody should be surprised by the numbers. We all saw the game. It was clear as day that Tua struggled. But thankfully, Twitter asked, “why?”

Specifically, NFL analyst for multiple outlets and league of legends extraordinaire Derrik Klassen asked Twitter to wonder, “why?,” as he had back-and-forths with other football analysts and Dolphins fans on Elon’s app. 

The Genius of DeMeco Ryans

I’ve been a massive fan of the New Orleans Saints defense for years. The mostly middle-of-field-closed defense was as well-coached as any in the league, and Dennis Allen utilized hybrid defensive backs better than anyone in the league.

But Ryans has taken over the role of defensive guru in the NFL, and it should lead to a head-coaching job in 2023. That will be a sad day because his marriage with the 49ers’ defensive personnel is perfect.

In 324 coverage snaps between Cover 1, Cover 2, Cover 5 (2-man), Cover 3, Cover 4, and Cover 6, the 49ers have nearly an even split between closed and open middle-of-field coverages.

Cover 1/3/6: 165 times
Cover 2/4/5: 159 times

The 49ers are as multiple in coverage as any unit in the NFL, and there isn’t a single look they give that lacks polish. Their coverage integrity is unbelievable.

And they used a bevy of different looks featuring Fred Warner in the middle of the field that gave Tua and the Dolphins’ passing attack fits.

But I would be remiss to avoid giving the 49ers’ front credit for their part in making things difficult. Tua’s pressure rate against San Francisco wasn’t awe-inspiring. They only pressured him on nine of his 36 dropbacks, but they sacked him three times, and some of those pressures negated possible explosive plays.

A Familiar Foe and an Elite Linebacker

It’s a copycat league, but what the 49ers’ defense did to the Dolphins isn’t necessarily replicable. San Francisco practices against a similar offense during the offseason. Ryans has intimate knowledge of its inner workings, and all Miami is doing is tweaking things to best fit their personnel compared to the 49ers.

Both offenses want to attack the middle of the field. Meanwhile, the 49ers’ defense ranks fourth in EPA per play against throws over the middle. Against Tua, it was clear why.

Fred Warner is a freak.

The 49ers run Cover 6 here against the Dolphins’ Dagger concept, and Warner plays the route combination about as well as a human can. He passes the vertical route off to the safety and immediately gets his eyes outside to find the in-breaker, which comes.

As Tua throws this, Warner’s hips are oriented toward where Trent Sherfield is coming from. He should be able to sneak this pass through, but Warner is an All-Pro. He flips his hips and extends a paw out to deflect the pass early in the contest.

On the surface, this just looks like a missed throw by Tua. The 49ers are in Cover 3, and the Dolphins are running an NCAA concept, looking to vacate the intermediate area of the field close to the numbers by running the coverage off with a vertical by the outside receiver and a post by the slot.

There are multiple issues here. Sometimes communication lacks and the post has leverage against the safety, but the 49ers DBs are well-coached, and as the cornerback threat leaves the area, he picks up the post responsibility.

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In most other situations, this pass is completed without much thought. But Warner is lurking, and it’s why this pass sails high, even though the receiver appears wide open.

Look at the exact moment Tua releases the pass. As he releases, Warner is gaining depth at a rapid rate, right in the area Tua wants to deliver the pass. It’s only after the ball leaves his hand that Warner pulls his eyes back into the QB and squares his hips, creating space for the throw.

What seems like a flat-out miss had a lot more to it.

DeMeco Ryans Blitzing at the Right Time

The 49ers do not often blitz, quite frankly, because they don’t really need to. But Ryans blitzed Miami a few times in 3rd-and-long situations with great effect.

Ryans has only rushed more than four on 81 of 399 attempts this season. He dialed up a six-man rush on this occasion, and it forced Tua into a quick decision that fell harmlessly to the turf.

Ideally, Tua throws this to Tyreek Hill on the crosser, and No. 10 is still running forward days later. However, Tua took the matchup against the blitz, attacking in the direction the blitz came from, where the least amount of traffic should be. The CB makes a great play.

The 49ers don’t run Cover 1 often, but when they do, over half of the time, they’re bringing five rushers. Tua hadn’t seen this look to this point, and even though the pre-snap motion hints that this is man coverage, he’s unable to do anything with that information.

The 49ers bring a long stunt with Nick Bosa looping around two interior rushers, getting to Tua quicker than you can cough and excuse yourself.

If timing is everything in life, Ryans must have life figured out.

Tua Made His Own Mistakes

Ryans and San Francisco’s defense did their part in making things hard for Tua, but Tagovailoa made his own mistakes on top of being forced into them.

Missing high is a dangerous game, and Tua played that game too often against the 49ers. A few times, he missed throws because of pressure or coverage, but a few missed were squarely on the left shoulder of the quarterback.

But overall, the 49ers’ defense was outstanding and forced the issue more often than not. Tagovailoa could have endured despite their defensive prowess, but it would have taken an incredibly clean play to accomplish that, given how well San Francisco’s defense remains assignment sound.

Miami’s quarterback had an off day, and Ryans put another outstanding defensive performance on his résumé for the offseason.

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