Tony Romo and Dez Bryant Can Lead Dallas Cowboys to Upset of San Francisco 49ers

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistSeptember 2, 2014

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant watches from the sidelines in the first half of a NFL preseason football game against the Denver Broncos, Thursday, Aug. 28. 2014, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)
Brandon Wade/Associated Press

For Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and wide receiver Dez Bryant, this season will likely be a tough one.

Bryant and Romo are the two best players on an offense that is set to play with one of the worst defenses in the league. The Cowboys had one of the worst defenses in the NFL last year and they have lost arguably their two best players from that unit: DeMarcus Ware and Sean Lee.

Without the Dallas defense's ability to contain opposing offenses, Romo and Bryant will be forced to carry the offense in shootouts on a regular basis this year. Against lesser opponents, they should be able to do that. In the 15 games that Bryant and Romo played in last year, the offense scored more than 30 points on seven occasions.

In Week 1 of the regular season, the Cowboys will host the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers' recent history suggests that they will be one of the best teams in the NFL this year. Since Jim Harbaugh took over in 2011, the franchise has gone 36-11 in regular season games and been to three NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl appearance

With Colin Kaepernick at the helm of the offense, the 49ers' arrow is pointing upwards for the long-term. However, the Cowboys don't need to be concerned with recent history or with the future. The 49ers they face this weekend likely won't look like either of those teams.

The 49ers have built their recent success on a run-first offense and a dominant defense.

31-year-old Frank Gore is the face of that running game, but the most important part of San Francisco's powerful ground game has been the offensive line. Before last season, the 49ers had clearly one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. In regards to last year, if it weren't for the Philadelphia Eagles' unit, San Francisco's OL might have been the best group in football.

The success of the offensive line was built on having five high-quality starters at a time when most teams struggle to find three. Joe Staley, Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis were all first-round picks. Alex Boone was an undrafted tackle, but developed into an outstanding right guard, while Jonathan Goodwin was a consistent veteran at the center spot.

Entering their Week 1 matchup with the Cowboys, Staley hasn't performed to his established standard in the preseason, Iupati has been similarly sluggish as he returns from a broken ankle, Boone returned to the team only this week after a prolonged holdout, Davis missed significant time because of offseason surgery and Goodwin returned this offseason to his former team, the New Orleans Saints.

For the first time since Kaepernick became the team's starting quarterback, the 49ers have serious concerns about the quality of their offensive line. Against the Cowboys this shouldn't be an issue, unless a shootout breaks out.

If the Cowboys can force a shootout against the 49ers, they will give themselves a chance to win the game. Outside of the Seattle Seahawks, the 49ers would likely be the last team you want to face when you're reliant on a high-scoring game to be competitive. At least, last year that would have been the case.

The 49ers defense that travels to Dallas this weekend will look significantly different from the one that ranked in the top five in points and yards allowed last season.

Linebackers Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman won't be available. Smith was suspended for the first nine games of the regular season, while Bowman isn't expected to return form the torn ACL he suffered in last season's NFC title game until later in the year. Bowman and Smith are two of the team's most important players.

Smith's absence significantly detracts the pass rush, while Bowman's ability in coverage is among the league's best at the linebacker position.

Without Bowman and Smith at their usual spots, more pressure will be put on the defensive line to be dominant. In recent times, that wouldn't be a challenge for Justin Smith and Ray McDonald. However, the Cowboys have improved their offensive line while Smith is noticeably declining at 34 years of age and McDonald may not play because he was recently arrested for domestic violence.

The strength of the 49ers defense has always been their front seven. Even though the secondary appears to be in better shape than any other time under Harbaugh, that won't matter much if Romo and Bryant are at their best.

If Romo and Bryant are at their best, the Cowboys should be able to drag the 49ers into the shootout that they don't want.


Tony Romo

Romo may not be fully healthy after his back injury that prematurely ended his season in 2013, but he did look like his old self when he was on the field during the regular season.

The veteran quarterback has become a polarizing figure—a productive QB but someone who is laughed at for errors late in games that aren't always his fault. The fascinating thing about Romo, especially throughout the second half of his career as a starter, is that he always seems to be compensating for weaknesses around him.

Unlike many other quarterbacks in the league, Romo hasn't benefited from the combination of above-average talent at running back, receiver and along the offensive line. Instead, he has been asked to compensate for the offensive line with his intelligence, for his receivers by extending plays and for the lack of a running game by throwing the ball a ton just to move the offense.

Entering this season, the Cowboys look set to finally give Romo the help he needs on the offensive side of the ball.

Part of the reason for the poor defensive showing in Dallas in recent years has been the team's investment in the offensive line. Just like the 49ers, the Cowboys now have three former first-round draft picks up front. However, unlike the 49ers, the Cowboys trio is still in the early stages of their respective careers.

Tyron Smith is established as a high-quality left tackle. Center Travis Frederick was impressive last year and this year's top rookie lineman, Zack Martin, is a highly touted prospect who will be expected to play well immediately.

With those pieces in place, alongside veterans Ronald Leary and Doug Free, Romo's pass protection should be very good this year. When you add in DeMarco Murray as the team's feature back, Romo should also benefit from having a balanced offense.

The combination of the Cowboys' improvement and the 49ers' decline on defense should give Romo plenty of time with which to work from the pocket in this game.

Romo extends plays. He is comfortable holding onto the ball and buying time for his receivers to get open down the field. Even as he's feeling and avoiding pressure, he's very adept at keeping his eyes peeled downfield for a receiver coming open.

Ben Roethlisberger is seen as the NFL's best at keeping pass plays alive, but Roethlisberger tends to leave the pocket when he extends plays. Romo is better than Roethlisberger at extending snaps within the confines of the tackle box.

Romo's willingness to be patient and hold onto the ball can get him in trouble at times, but it becomes invaluable when the opposition can't rush the passer with just four defenders.

While the 49ers still have enough talent upfront—especially with some younger pass-rushers ready to emerge—they can't expect to get a consistent rush without two of their best linebackers on the field. This will likely allow Romo time to pick apart the secondary and find weaknesses over the middle of the field with Bowman's absence.

Once that happens, the 49ers will be forced to try and create pressure with blitz packages.

Intelligence is a word that is often associated with quarterbacks, but the mental aspect is often not given the same weight as the physical attributes needed to succeed at the position.

There are multiple facets to mastering the intellectual realm of playing quarterback. One critical ability has to be signal-caller's skill at reading defenses from the pocket while being aware of pressure. A quarterback must be able to anticipate route combinations and manipulate the coverage to create windows to throw into.

Another type of intelligence comes at anticipating and beating the blitz.

When teams blitz a quarterback, the goal is to rush the passer's thought process and force a mistake. So instead of sitting back in the pocket and going through his reads, the quarterback must be able to diagnose the blitz in a split second and immediately locate the "hot" receiver.

In one situation the quarterback must be deliberate with his decision-making, in the other he must be very quick with his instincts to react to what is happening around him.

Romo is very dangerous when defenses try to disguise a four-man rush or come at him with extra defenders. If the Cowboys offensive line can give him enough protection to nullify the four-man rush, then the 49ers will be forced to go down that route.

Importantly, he has the receivers on the outside to take advantage of those quick throws by finding space with the ball in their hands.

Even though Miles Austin was let go during the offseason, the Cowboys are arguably better in this area with Terrance Williams, Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley behind Bryant on the depth chart.


Dez Bryant

While Romo and the Cowboys offensive line attempts to highlight the flaws in the 49ers' front seven, much of the responsibility against the secondary will be put on the shoulders of Dez Bryant.

Bryant is already one of the very best receivers in the NFL. At just 25 years of age, he is just about to enter his prime. Bryant technically broke out two seasons ago when he had 92 receptions for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns, but last season was when he really elevated his play to another level.

Despite receiving much more attention from the defense and being forced to consistently make phenomenal receptions because of that attention, he had 93 receptions for 1,233 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Much like A.J. Green, Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson, Bryant is the kind of all-around receiver that is going to be productive no matter how he is covered. Standing at 6'2", Bryant has the perfect size to dominate at the catch point but also still be very elusive and versatile in space. He carries a thick build, but is also a very fluid athlete.

Unlike an Alshon Jeffery or Josh Gordon, Bryant doesn't simply excel in one area. He has the ability to dominate defensive backs with his size, speed, quickness, ball skills or route running.

For that reason, it doesn't really matter that the 49ers have arguably the best secondary they have ever had under Harbaugh. Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver, Chris Cook and Perrish Cox may have their strengths, but none have the ability to counter Bryant at his best.

Maybe only Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman possibly could.

Romo and Bryant complement each other perfectly, because Romo is an aggressive passer who has the accuracy to put the ball in a spot that allows Bryant to compete for it even against double teams. When you combine that with his overall accuracy and ability to throw on anticipation, it's no surprise that Bryant has been so successful in recent times.

Against Bryant, the 49ers will likely want to slant their coverage towards him or even double-team him without trying to mask their intentions.

For the Cowboys to prevent that from happening, Romo and the offensive line needs to force the defense to remain honest. If the defense is committing two players to Bryant, they can't blitz Romo and they will be giving up space to Murray in the running game.

Furthermore, Terrance Williams is a fast receiver who offers the potential for big plays if left in space. He can beat press coverage and work down the sideline or be efficiently effective working underneath. He and Dwayne Harris, along with Jason Witten, would become more valuable pieces in the offense if the 49ers overcompensate to stop Bryant.

The 49ers' revamping of their secondary should prove to be a fine investment over the long-term, especially at the safety spot, but they haven't built a unit that is going to comfortably match up to elite receivers.



It's very difficult to expect the Cowboys to win this game. As much as the 49ers are ailing, the Cowboys simply don't have the quality on the defensive side of the ball to contain Kaepernick.

The 49ers have to enter this game as the favorites and they should be expected to win, but a comfortable victory seems improbable. The gulf between the two teams isn't such that Bryant and Romo can't close it and for all the negativity both players tend to draw for different reasons, both are typically consistent on the field.

Picking the upset in this game wouldn't be crazy. It's unlikely to happen, but if it wasn't then it wouldn't be an upset.


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