Eric Wright, the 49ers' right cornerback, missed a tackle on Tony Nathan on a little swing-pass play the first time the Dolphins had the ball in the game, and a five-yard gain turned into 25. Then he loosened up on the TD drive, and Marino threw for successive gains of 18 yards to Mark Clayton and 11 to Mark Duper.
"I talked to Eric after that series," Niner left cornerback Ronnie Lott said, "and told him to challenge them. He's the best cover guy we have, and he came back and made two big plays."
The Niners had opened in their basic 3-4 defense, alternating it with a 4-3 and occasionally a 4-2 nickel. Miami responded on its second series with a no-huddle offense, as the Dolphins had hinted they might during the week. The tactic was conceived to prevent San Francisco's nickel unit from coming on the field without burning up a timeout. And it worked; Miami got a big gain against the Niners' 3-4 when tight end Dan Johnson beat strongside outside linebacker Danny Bunz for a 21-yard gain that carried to the San Francisco two. But that play signaled the end of the 49ers' 3-4. For the final three quarters they kept four down linemen on the field at all times, with their pass-rush unit of Fred Dean and Dwaine Board at the ends and Gary (Big Hands) Johnson and either Jeff Stover or Michael Carter at the tackles.
The Niners knew that eventually this game would come down to a four-man rush against Marino, with little help available from the linebackers, who were too valuable in coverage to use on blitzes. The Dolphins' TD drive just forced the 49ers into the 4-3 earlier than they might have liked.
"Our four linemen are going to have to do it without help for most of the afternoon, defensive line coach Bill McPherson had said the night before the game. "Oh, we'll mix in a stunt or a blitz, just to keep from being static, and we'll show a three-man line, just to show it, although it's probably a waste of time. But our front four guys are going to have to have the game of their lives."
"Two men are keys for us," San Francisco coach Bill Walsh said, "Board and Johnson. Whether we line up Dean on the left or right side, I expect that they'll move the tight end to where he's positioned. That leaves Board on the open side, and he's crucial. He has the most stamina, he's the most irrepressible, the most dogged. But he's got to have a big game.
"We also have to get speed inside. We have to get Johnson coming in quickly up the middle one or two times, to make them think he's unblocked, even if he isn't. Maybe we'll do it with stunts. They're susceptible to tackle-tackle games, where one inside man loops around the other. They're concerned about it. Maybe we'll just play it straight and see how far we get with it."
Board had two sacks against the Dolphins, but the game's unofficial defensive MVP was Johnson. The Chargers traded him to the 49ers late in September for two draft choices, and at 32 it seemed as if his mileage had just about been used up. A few years back, when he was the regular right tackle in San Diego's 4-3 defense, he was an All-Pro, one of the most feared pass-rushers in the game, but when the 3-4 arrived he became extra baggage. The Chargers had tried him at noseguard and defensive end, and he couldn't cut it.
"I turned into a nonplayer," he says. "I'm a natural tackle. My whole game is based on quick moves inside. I'm not a defensive end. My style is beating people quickly, on the line. Everything I could do best was taken away from me in a 3-4. In San Diego I started questioning myself, wondering if I really was through. Coming to San Francisco was a breath of fresh air. All they wanted me to do was get to the passer, out of a four-man line. They didn't care how I did it. They gave me a chance to play Gary Johnson-type football, to do the things Gary Johnson's capable of."
Against the Dolphins Johnson gave Marino the type of gut pressure he hadn't seen before. Johnson shot the gaps, then, when double-teamed, he beat the maneuver with a quick arm-over. He was back in late-1970s form, and he wound up with a 12-yard sack, numerous flushes and four unassisted tackles. Significantly one of those unassisteds was on Nathan, a running back, for a three-yard loss. The book says to run against a four-man front, but the 49er linemen were penetrating too quickly. They destroyed the Dolphin rushing game with quickness. "Play the pass first and collect the run on the go," is the way Johnson put it.