The ground game is the foundation of the 49ers offense. It sets up everything they do in the passing game.
In 2013, San Francisco finished third in the league in rushing with 137.6 yards per game and third in attempts at 37.6.
Of course, this is matter of easier said then done for a maligned Cowboys defense that ranked a pitiful 27th in the league last season, giving up 128.9 yards per game.
The preseason offered little encouragement, as the Cowboys finished last in the league in run defense, giving up 633 yards on 147 carries in four exhibition games.
The Cowboys allowed 158.3 yards per game and 4.3 yards per attempt.
"I think it’s a probably a combination of things based on who is in the game," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said of the problems against the run in the preseason. "I think gap discipline and making sure your run fits are right; that's been an issue at different times throughout the preseason. Getting off blocks, tackling. Those things we have to get better at.
"Hopefully our defense grows in those areas. I think we have shown improvement from the start of training camp until now. Individual guys have gotten better. We have to get better as a team. Obviously you can’t allow a team to run the football and control the game like that."
Certainly, the preseason has never been a true litmus test of how a team would perform during the season—especially considering how little the starters played. But it didn't offer any encouragement that the Cowboys will offer any resistance during the regular season, starting Sunday in the season opener against the 49ers either.
The Cowboys were 4-0 last season when they kept their opponent under 100 yards rushing, and that is the key to any success they hope to have against the 49ers Sunday.
Of course stopping the run means winning at the line of scrimmage which will be a tall order for a defensive line that has not only been a turnstile in games but also in the locker room in preseason.
Defensive tackles Henry Melton (knee, groin) and Terrell McClain (groin) missed the entire preseason because of injuries and will get their first live snaps against the 49ers.
Defensive end George Selvie only played briefly in one preseason game because of a bad shoulder.
All of the aforementioned players will be back and should help the Cowboys stiffen up against the run and get after Kaepernick on passing downs.
At least that’s the plan.
“You know it was good to see Terrell back out there," Melton said. “Whoever’s out there, we’re going to roll, and we’re going to try to get after Kaepernick. That’s going to be very important. Kaepernick is a guy who is going to test our limits with keeping him contained. He’s really good on his feet, making plays that way. It’s going to test us.”
Stopping Gore and his battering-ram rushing style is a reason Rolando McClain will likely get the start at middle linebacker against the 49ers in what will be his first game since 2012.
McClain sat out last season in semi-retirement and is looking to live up to his All-American potential from his college days at Alabama. At least that's what the Cowboys are hoping they are getting and not the 2011 first-round bust the Oakland Raiders had for two years.
At 6'4", 260 pounds, McClain has the size to take on blockers and be a force in the run game on Sunday.
Stopping the Gore's power is one thing. Stopping Kaepernick on the zone read is another because of his gazelle-like speed. The Cowboys must stay in their lanes, show gap discipline and show aggression on defense.
“I think he’s like a lot of these quarterbacks who are really, really good athletes,” Garrett said. “The thing you’ve got to remember about him is he really can throw the football. He’s a big, strong guy who can throw it all over the park. If you give him lanes or you give him an opportunity to break contain, he can make huge plays with his feet.
"There’s a point where he’s just running by people. So much of what they’ve been able to accomplish offensively comes from his ability to throw it, his ability to make plays with his feet when things break down. He’s a big part of what they do.
“They have a big, strong offensive line. They have a great runner, and they have a dynamic playmaking quarterback. The challenges are certainly there. They’re all over the tape.”
If the Cowboys can somehow limit the 49ers on the ground on first and second downs, they should have some success against Kaepernick and their limited passing attack.
Put Kaepernick in 3rd-and-long situations and you have the 49ers right where you want them.
Kaepernick is a good passer, but he's still a first-read guy. Make him go through his progressions in search of second and third options.
That is not his strong suit.
But this also means that a Cowboys pass defense that ranked last in the league last year and is without its best cornerback—Orlando Scandrick for the first four games of the season—must hold up coverage-wise in the secondary.
Well, first things first.
Stop Gore and Kaepernick on the ground first and then worry about covering downfield.
If the Dallas Cowboys don't do the former, the latter won't matter.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.