Starting Thursday night, the narrative for NFL teams changes. It's less about offseason off-the-field issues, position battles and contract rumors and more about wins and losses.
For the San Francisco 49ers, the regular season can't start soon enough.
They can begin to put all their offseason drama behind them. They can begin to prove their doubters wrong.
But to do so, they'll have to go into AT&T Stadium and beat the Dallas Cowboys.
The Cowboys are probably about as tired as the 49ers are of the offseason.
All they've been hearing about is how their defense allowed the third-most yards in a single season in NFL history in 2013. And two of their best defensive players, Jason Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware, signed elsewhere in the offseason, which has led some, including Josh Planos of The Washington Post, to suggest their defense could be worse.
It's safe to say the Cowboys won't be a good defensive team this year. But it's even safer to say that new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli's unit will be incredibly motivated by all the offseason criticism.
Will a new scheme and motivation make up for a lack of quality personnel? Maybe a bit, but make no mistake: The 49ers have all sorts of matchup advantages.
They'll first look to get Frank Gore and the running game rolling. San Francisco was third in the league in rushing yards per game last year, whereas Dallas ranked 27th in run defense.
The Cowboys' best chance at containing the 49ers' run game is taking advantage of a potentially rusty right side of the offensive line.
The status of right tackle Anthony Davis is up in the air (update: Davis is listed as "out" on the injury report), and who knows how right guard Alex Boone will fare (assuming he plays) after missing all of SF's training camp and preseason with his holdout?
Of course, the 49ers will also want to open up their passing attack with Stevie Johnson joining forces with Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis. As long as the 49ers protect Colin Kaepernick, the fourth-year signal-caller should have an efficient day against the 30th-ranked pass defense from 2013.
Realistically, Tony Romo knows he'll have to guide the Dallas offense to a top-five scoring average for the Cowboys to have a winning season. More immediately, his offense may need 30-plus points to win Week 1.
He's capable of delivering just that.
In Romo's 15 starts last year, the Cowboys scored at least 30 points seven times. Overall, they ranked fifth in scoring offense, eighth in yards per carry and 13th in passing yards per attempt.
Where the Cowboys can win this game is through the air, especially with pass-rusher Aldon Smith serving a nine-game suspension. Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams and Jason Witten will challenge San Francisco's new-look secondary. Let's break down a couple of things to expect from Dallas' passing offense.
The first thing the 49ers will have to do is contain Bryant. They'll likely turn to several forms of bracket coverage, which basically ensures one safety (at the least) is always helping the cornerback on a deep route to the star receiver's side of the field.
Here's an example of it from 2012 against Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions:
Notice that the circled safety at the right of the picture (Dashon Goldson) is 10 yards behind the closest Lions receiver (Johnson). If Detroit had thrown the ball deep, Goldson would've been in the best position possible to prevent a long completion. And the other benefit of having a very deep safety is if a star receiver, like Bryant, breaks a cornerback's tackle, there is an extra line of defense.
In the 2012 game, Johnson had eight catches for 94 yards. But he had no touchdowns, and his longest catch (without counting his yards after catch) was 17 yards down the field. The Niners took away Johnson's deep threat and won 27-19.
Of course, if you're taking one safety that far out of the play, other receivers will have more room to work with underneath. When the game's on the line (third down, fourth quarter, etc.), Romo will likely look to Witten if Bryant is commanding lots of attention.
In fact, the last time these two teams met in 2011, Romo found Witten on a 4th-and-5 out route to keep Dallas alive in the fourth quarter.
In this first picture, you'll see that Donte Whitner, who is guarding Witten one-on-one, has his head turned away from the play and lets Witten get a clean, outside release:
Here's the result:
The Cowboys would go on to win this game 27-24 in overtime. Witten had seven catches for 102 yards.
And trust me, the Cowboys have continued to run out routes to Witten over the last three seasons. Here's one on third down in Week 16, Romo's last game of the 2013 season:
In the 2011 game, at times the 49ers put slot cornerback Carlos Rogers on Witten, which worked much better than having a linebacker or safety on him. But the Cowboys tend to run lots of three-wide receiver sets, which means nickel cornerback Jimmie Ward will more likely be matched up against a slot receiver.
Fortunately, the Niners have Patrick Willis, a linebacker who's fast and physical enough to guard Witten effectively. Expect them to be matched up one-on-one several times in passing situations (like they were in 2011).
In the 2011 matchup, Willis did a nice job seeing the play develop by backpedaling (which Whitner did not do on the aforementioned 4th-and-5 catch). However, Willis did allow allow a couple of short completions to Witten this way. Honestly, it's pick your poison.
If Willis and Michael Wilhoite can take away Witten in one-on-one situations, it will be a long day for Romo.
Key Stats to Know
- Romo is 5-2 in season openers; Jim Harbaugh is 3-0.
- In the 2013 regular season, the 49ers were 11-0 when Kap had a passer rating above 73.
- Dallas allowed an NFL-high 633 rushing yards in the preseason.
- Gore needs 33 rushing yards to reach 10,000 for his career.
- In 2013, Gore had his lowest YPC average (4.1) and only reached the rushing century mark once in his last 13 games (playoffs included).
- San Francisco allowed the eighth-fewest passing yards to tight ends in 2013.
- Bryant caught only 22 percent of passes thrown 20 yards or more downfield in 2013, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
- Kap's 83.4 QBR when Boldin, Davis and Crabtree were all on the field would have ranked second in the NFL in 2013.
Colin Kaepernick: 64.0 comp pct, 83.4 QBR with M Crabtree, A Boldin and V Davis on field this season (55.8 comp pct, 63.4 QBR with any off)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 10, 2014
You know what you're going to get from the Cowboys, more or less. Their offense can score on anyone, and their defense can be exposed by anyone.
In comparison, the 49ers seem like the wild cards.
How many points will Dallas score against San Francisco?
Their defense is more vulnerable than it's ever been in the Harbaugh era. They're going to need major contributions from relatively inexperienced players, such as Tank Carradine, Jimmie Ward and Corey Lemonier. Sure, they're all very talented, but Dallas' offense is good enough to expose mistakes they make.
San Francisco's offense has more weapons than it's had in the Harbaugh era. But will the offensive line, which struggled at times in the preseason and might be a bit rusty, hold up enough to utilize those weapons? Will Kap quickly find a rhythm after a rather unproductive preseason? Will Gore show, once again, that he's an exception to the running back aging rule?
I'll say yes, yes and yes.
As noted above, Kap was great last year with his full weaponry. And even if the 49ers' offensive line isn't at its best, it still can rely on its All-Pro left side of Joe Staley and Mike Iupati to create running lanes for a fresh Gore.
Romo will have some success against San Francisco's secondary, but this defense will hold up just enough. In three years under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, the 49ers have allowed 30 or more points just twice. Neither instance came in 2013.
"We're losing some key guys. We have every right to question and be worried," Willis said, per Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group. "But we're not going to do that."
Justin Smith or Willis getting injured might be the straw that breaks the defense's back. But as long as those two are on the field, the Niners should be able to at least slow down Dallas' offense enough to win Sunday.
San Francisco 31, Dallas 24