While the luster of the historic 49ers-Cowboys rivalry may have waned a bit since the heydays of the 1970s, '80s and '90s, San Francisco will be looking to place its stamp on this game for a strong start to the season.
The 49ers enter the contest following a 2-2 record in the preseason. But the bigger San Francisco storylines focused on a number of key players on the 49ers' roster.
Linebacker Aldon Smith, offensive guard Alex Boone and defensive end Ray McDonald were all in the news for various reasons. Smith's nine-game suspension will obviously hinder San Francisco's defense. Boone has since ended his holdout and will return to action. McDonald's arrest for domestic battery casts another shadow on the 49ers' season.
Regardless of the news, Jim Harbaugh and Co. want the 49ers to start off the season on the right track.
The Cowboys finished 8-8 in 2013 and wrapped up the preseason with a lackluster 0-4 record.
Defense proved to be a huge problem for Dallas last season—they tried to improve in that area via the 2014 NFL draft by selecting seven defensive players out of nine total picks.
Still, the 49ers will look to exploit this weakness while attempting to shut down quarterback Tony Romo and the Cowboys' high-flying offense in the hostile environment of AT&T Stadium.
In this article, we will assess San Francisco's approach in this Week 1 matchup against their old rivals. The 49ers want to get off to a hot start and have an excellent opportunity to do so against a vulnerable Cowboys team.
Breaking Down the Numbers
The 49ers defense will again be a primary strength in 2014. San Francisco's defense under coordinator Vic Fangio will attempt to pick up right where the team left off a season ago.
Last year, the 49ers ranked No. 3 in points allowed (272) and No. 5 in total yards allowed (5,071). By comparison, the Cowboys were No. 26 in points allowed (432) and last in the NFL in total yards given up (6,645).
Simply put, it is easy to move the ball against Dallas' defense.
The Cowboys were among the lowest in the league at stopping both the run and pass—ranked No. 24 and No. 30, respectively. While San Francisco's pass attack last year was pretty abysmal—No. 30 in the NFL with 2,979 yards—the rushing offense posted 2,201 yards, which was good for third in the league.
Granted, the 49ers' receiving corps is vastly improved this year after the offseason additions of Brandon Lloyd, Stevie Johnson and Bruce Ellington—combined with fully healthy wideouts Michael Crabtree and Quinton Patton—but we should still expect San Francisco to utilize its powerful running game.
Let's take a look at the numbers side by side:
|49ers/Cowboys 2013 Statistics|
|Passing Yards||Rushing Yards||TD||Pass Yards Allowed||Rush Yards Allowed||TD Allowed|
There is no question the Cowboys can put up offensive numbers, especially through the air. Much of the 49ers' attention will be focused on shutting down wide receiver Dez Bryant as well as tight end Jason Witten. Wideout Terrence Williams may also be another Dallas factor.
Maintaining Defensive Dominance
As mentioned previously, the 49ers will do their best to shut down Romo and the Cowboys' passing game.
This means a lot of action between Bryant and San Francisco's No. 1 cornerback Tramaine Brock, so we'll see how the 5'10", 197-pound Brock matches up against the larger 6'2", 225-pound Bryant. Additional help from either Eric Reid or Antoine Bethea might be in order if Brock struggles for any lengthy duration.
Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area reports that Bethea is on pace to start in Week 1 after suffering a concussion in the preseason.
Bryant has averaged 61.4 yards per game in his career against opponents in the NFC West.
Another interesting battle to watch will be how Dallas utilizes its slot receiver against San Francisco's nickel defense. With receiver Dwayne Harris questionable (hip) for the game, per CBS Sports, it may be time for Cole Beasley to get some touches up against 49ers rookie defensive back Jimmie Ward.
San Francisco's front seven will look to exploit a Cowboys offensive line that gave up 35 sacks last season. Even though the 49ers will be without Smith and NaVorro Bowman for the first half of the year, this particular unit should be able to put up plenty of pressure versus Dallas' O-line.
This means some likely stats from second-year pro Corey Lemonier, who figures to get the bulk of reps in Smith's absence.
Let's take a look at some of his highlight reels from last season:
It should be business as usual for San Francisco's run defense. The 49ers gave up 1,535 rushing yards last season and should match up favorably against Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray.
Murray totaled 1,121 rushing yards last season on 217 attempts while averaging 5.2 yards per attempt. Limiting his attack up the middle will be paramount to the 49ers' game plan.
While not necessarily a huge setback, former 49ers special teamer C.J. Spillman inked a deal with the Cowboys after being released by San Francisco during roster cuts, per Eric Branch of SFGate.com. Does this give Dallas some insight? Perhaps, but it's negligible at best.
Establishing Offensive Rhythm
The 49ers have to respect the Cowboys' ability to score at home. This ties in directly to the defense and special teams, obviously, but a significant element of this will be San Francisco's efforts to win the time-of-possession battle.
As stated, the 49ers will use their crop of receivers as necessary. But the bulk of work should fall upon running backs Frank Gore, Carlos Hyde and LaMichael James as San Francisco looks to establish the run early and often.
Drew Davison of The Star-Telegram reports that Dallas' D-line is getting close to full strength, although he suspects the Cowboys will continuously rotate players along the line as needed.
Gore and Hyde will look to punish the interior of the Cowboy's line throughout the game. This, in turn, will wear down the entire defense and help open up the pass—an aspect Dallas was exceptionally weak against last year.
Vincent Frank of Fox Sports suggests the best way to do this is to keep the Cowboys defense in a dime formation, as they will double cover tight end Vernon Davis, leaving wideouts Anquan Boldin and Crabtree in single coverage. This will open things up for Gore and Hyde.
Could we see offensive coordinator Greg Roman's new-look offense in Week 1 considering the weakness of Dallas' pass defense?
Perhaps, but a hunch would indicate the 49ers would be better off relying on the running game more and leaving this revamped pass attack for games against much more vaunted defenses. We'll likely see plenty of standard formations on offense from San Francisco instead of a vast increase in three-wideout sets.
Still, the name of the game will be clock possession and momentum.
When the 49ers' offense starts to click, it can be hard to stop. Does Dallas' defense muster enough to stop San Francisco's offensive rhythm for 60 minutes of play? It certainly doesn't seem that way.
As mentioned, the battle between Brock and Bryant will be one to watch, as Romo will frequently look to his favorite passing target.
Brock cemented himself as San Francisco's No. 1 corner last season, which gave the 49ers flexibility to part ways with veterans Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers during the offseason. This will be his first true test as the 49ers' top corner going up against an established wideout in Bryant.
Also previously noted was the Cowboys' inability to protect Romo over the course of the season. Even without Smith, the 49ers should be able to establish plenty of pass-rushing prowess from the likes of Lemonier and second-year pro Tank Carradine. Look for both to be major factors on defense.
On the flip side, moving the ball on the ground against a vulnerable Cowboys defense will assuredly be San Francisco's offensive game plan.
While Hyde has certainly garnered a lot of attention prior to the season, Gore will likely be the top rusher for the 49ers in Week 1. Speculation would lead us to believe that Gore should carry the bulk of work from the position early this season, gradually giving way to Hyde as the year progresses.
This way, Gore can be rested for an anticipated playoff run.
But to move the ball on the ground, the 49ers will have to count upon their own O-line to establish dominance at the line of scrimmage. We saw some ugly moments, especially from the right side, during the preseason.
Fortunately, Boone is back on the field at right guard post-holdout, and right tackle Anthony Davis should see his first action of the season after being sidelined with an injury during the preseason.
Yet both players might have to shake off the rust early on, meaning we could potentially see a few more ugly moments out there.
This matchup is perhaps best described as David vs. Goliath, as the Cowboys try to resemble a prominent team that no longer exists on paper.
As stated by Shawn Lealos of CBS Dallas-Fort Worth:
The Dallas Cowboys head into the 2014 NFL season hoping to somehow overcome an uphill battle to make the playoffs. Their first game, however, will be against a team that is a favorite to not just make the playoffs, but also to make it back to the Super Bowl for the second time in three seasons.
Hope is essentially all Dallas has to ride upon for this particular game.
True, the ball isn't round, and nothing is guaranteed in the NFL. But San Francisco is an easy favorite as they open up the first regular-season test against a Dallas opponent that ranked nearly last in almost every defensive category last season.
The 49ers will look to take advantage of this throughout the game and not suffer the always-present lapses that often accompany a team facing off against an inferior opponent.
We'll have to wait and see exactly how this pans out, but there should be little reason to speculate against San Francisco holding a 1-0 record after Week 1.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Be sure to check out his entire archive on 49ers news, insight and analysis.
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