The Miami Dolphins’ high-powered offense has passed nearly every test it has faced this season. But arguably the unit’s toughest test will come on Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.
And that’s not only because the 49ers’ defense has allowed the fewest points in the NFL at 15.7 per game and ranks eighth in sacks with 33 this season. It’s also because the Dolphins likely will be without starting left tackle Terron Armstead and definitely will be without starting right tackle Austin Jackson.
Jackson, the Dolphins’ starting right tackle, was ruled out on Friday for Sunday’s game because of an ankle injury he sustained in last Sunday’s win over the Houston Texans. Brandon Shell will likely fill in at right tackle for Jackson, who will miss his 10th game of the season this week.
Armstead, the Dolphins’ starting left tackle, was listed as doubtful for Sunday’s game. He sustained a reported Grade 2 pectoral strain in the second quarter of last Sunday’s win over the Texans. Greg Little is expected to start at left tackle in his place on Sunday.
“I think both have shown flexibility, especially this season,” Dolphins offensive coordinator Frank Smith said of Little and Shell. “Both have played obviously on either side. ... We felt pretty good with the two of them basically being able to show flexibility. Obviously with Brandon doing several games on the right side, I’m sure the comfortability for him is probably more over there. Greg naturally was more of a left tackle. But both of them have shown the flexibility to do both, which has made it invaluable for us because beyond the starting five, you really have to look at being flexible to do whatever the needs of the day are.”
While Jackson has missed most of the season, Armstead has played in 10 of the Dolphins’ first 11 games. The offensive line has been solid with Armstead available to control things on the left side, allowing pressures on 32.8 percent of dropbacks (tied for the 14th-lowest rate in the league, according to Tru Media) and a total of 23 sacks (tied for eighth fewest) this season.
But Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was sacked four times in three drives after Armstead exited last Sunday’s win over the Texans early because of a pectoral injury. Tagovailoa was pressured on 33 percent of his dropbacks against the Texans — he has been pressured more this season only in a Week 1 victory over the New England Patriots.
“The good thing is that Terron Armstead, obviously we know what we get when he’s in there,” Smith said. “The challenge when he’s not is just making sure that we work on those communication aspects, we work on the techniques of the two of them [Little and Shell] working together. And that’s something we’ve been trying to emphasize this week and making sure that the different components of guys are working together through techniques appropriately.”
The Dolphins’ challenge this week, especially if both Armstead and Jackson can’t play, is to create enough time for Tagovailoa to orchestrate what has become one of the NFL’s elite passing attacks. The 49ers won’t make it easy with a defensive line that features defensive end Nick Bosa, who ranks third in the league with 11.5 sacks this season.
A quick passing game could be one solution on Sunday.
“If you’re accounting for that whether we have the tackles or not, then if you’re able to throw on time, then you’re kind of making the rush moot,” Dolphins quarterbacks coach Darrell Bevell said. “It’s a moot point and that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to handle things and do things to make sure that we’re taking care of the edges. I mean, you’re playing one of the best, elite rushers in the league, so you don’t just turn a blind eye to that. But the timing is something that is very critical that enables you to still play at a high level.”
Because Jackson has missed extended time, Little and Shell already have starting experience this season. Little started Weeks 2 through 5 for Jackson at right tackle before he was benched for Shell, who started Weeks 6 through 10 at right tackle.
Little also started at left tackle in the one game that Armstead missed this season in Week 6 and gave up three sacks that day against the New York Jets, according to Pro Football Focus.
“In terms of how they’ve played, I’ve been very happy with them,” McDaniel said of Little and Shell. “It is a tough task to play tackle in this league. And I think it’s a credit to them how they’ve played.
“The fact that after games that they’ve played, which they’ve gotten a ton of time, the fact that we’re not singling them out as a reason for this that or the other, you don’t just fall into that. Typically, that is the case that you end up creating a story line with when your starting tackles are injured. At this point, they’ve just really done their best to keep the offense moving forward, and have been huge contributors to really where we’re at sitting at 8-3. So I’ve been very impressed. I make sure as much as I can to let them know because that’s a tall task that not everyone undertakes.”
Shell believes communication is key when there are moving parts on the offensive line, whether he’s working on the left side next to guard Robert Jones or on the right side next to guard Robert Hunt. With Jackson already ruled out, it remains to be seen if the Dolphins will also have to overcome the absence of Armstead on Sunday.
“As we’re working through different variables, it’s just getting on that same communication page,” Smith said. “Showing those situations where it’s like you’re teaching a little bit, where like a guy like Terron just has that natural instinct from years of experience.”