The San Francisco 49ers open their regular season on the road against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. The oddsmakers have made the 49ers roughly 4.5 point favorites, meaning they view the 49ers as about a touchdown better on a neutral field, once you add in the standard disadvantage for playing on the road.
What would it take for the 49ers to take the opener and disappoint Cowboy fans? I took a look at all four of Dallas’ preseason losses to try to get a better understanding of what the team will look like this year.
What would a Dallas win look like? It would start on offense.
While it’s a popular pastime to point to Tony Romo’s high-profile fourth-quarter failures, they don’t come close to painting an accurate picture of the veteran quarterback's abilities.
Yes, we remember Danny Trevathan picking Romo off to set up a game-winning field goal for the Denver Broncos, or Tramon Williams coming up with a pick in December to seal a Green Bay victory, or even the earlier pick by Sam Shields that help put a once-enormous Dallas lead in jeopardy, but these few plays don’t tell the entire story.
In the fourth quarter or overtime last season, Romo actually put up a quarterback rating of 105.5, throwing 10 touchdowns to four interceptions. That’s fewer interceptions than Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or Russell Wilson threw. His completion percentage of 69.6 percent was the highest for any quarterback with at least 100 attempts, too.
The problem with Romo is that he has the problem of being a top-10 quarterback in one of best eras ever for quarterbacks. No, Romo’s not Peyton Manning, Drew Brees or Tom Brady. He’s still the best player the Cowboys have, and one of the key reasons they’ve been in contention late in the fourth quarter to begin with.
Romo is coming off of surgery for a herniated disc in his back, but that didn’t seem to slow him down too much in preseason action. Romo was 14-of-23 for 167 yards and a touchdown, and I didn’t see any real hesitation or delay in his action. He also took several hits and got back up again. While there were earlier offseason concerns about his deep ball, I didn’t see any issues myself.
Romo hooked up with Dez Bryant multiple times this preseason, including on this touchdown pass against the Baltimore Ravens. A Cowboys win will involve that type of connection over and over and over again. Three of the 49ers’ five primary defensive backs, Antonie Bethea, Chris Culliver and Jimmie Ward, were not on the team last year, and this is their first real test.
How will they handle an elite receiver like Bryant?
Covering Bryant will fall to Culliver and Tramaine Brock—and that’s a mismatch. While I think Brock is a very solid corner, Bryant’s one of the top five receivers in the entire league.
The last time the 49ers played against a receiver of that caliber was Jordy Nelson, in the Wild Card Round game against Green Bay last January. Nelson was targeted eight times and caught seven of those passes, including a five-yard touchdown. No one on the team could seem to stop Nelson from getting open. Add in the Week 1 matchup, and Nelson had 14 receptions on 18 targets for 192 yards and two touchdowns.
It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which the depleted 49ers defense lets Romo hook up with Bryant on multiple deep passes. The 49ers are going to have to double Bryant nearly constantly, which could allow Jason Witten and Terrence Williams to get open underneath. A weapon like Bryant is a powerful tool.
The 49ers contained the damage Nelson did in the postseason by limiting him to shorter routes and using sure tackling—he had only 17 yards after the catch and his longest reception was 19 yards. That’s not how Bryant operates—he’s more likely to be sprinting halfway downfield and winning jump balls. Bryant is 6’2”, a full four inches taller than Brock and two inches taller than Culliver.
A Cowboys win sees Romo hitting Bryant multiple times, as the 49er defense struggles to respond to his sheer physical strength and size advantage. The Cowboys offense scored 27.4 points per game last season, and topped 30 points seven times. It exceeds that against a defense missing five starters from last year’s opening day and win a footrace.
What would a San Francisco win look like, then? Well, it turns out that the Cowboys also have to play defense about half the time.
You think San Francisco has had problems with their defense in the offseason? The Cowboys, who allowed 27 points a game last year, lost their best defender, DeMarcus Ware, to salary-cap considerations. Jason Hatcher’s moved on to Washington. Sean Lee tore his ACL on the first day of OTAs and will miss the entire season.
The Cowboys allowed 6,645 total yards last season. That wasn’t just the worst performance in 2013, it was the third-worst performance of all time, behind only the 2012 Bountygate New Orleans Saints and the 1981 Baltimore Colts. Now, you’ve subtracted three key contributors, and whom have they added? Henry Melton, coming off of a terrible 2013? No one to make opponents tremble in their boots, that’s for sure.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Cowboys had five sacks, nine quarterback hits and 17 hurries in the preseason, which sounds alright. That includes work by a lot of players who have been cut, both on offense and defense, however.
If you total up the pass-rush results of the starters, the Cowboys had one QB hit (Jeremy Mincy against Ryan Tannehill) and one QB hurry (Kyle Wilber on Philip Rivers). That’s really, really bad—even the 49ers, who played their defensive starters less than almost any team in the league, managed to generate more than that with their first-team defense.
So, while the 49ers offensive line is still somewhat in flux—as Alex Boone may not be ready to go yet and Anthony Davis wasn’t on hand on Wednesday’s practice, according to Matt Barrows—I’m not worried about Dallas’ pass rush. You take away the best players from a team that generated only 34 sacks last season and put them up against a quarterback as mobile as Colin Kaepernick, and you’re asking for trouble.
At the time of this article, Michael Crabtree’s status is up in the air; Crabtee’s nursing a calf injury, according to Matt Maiocco. I have a hunch, however, that the Dallas native won’t miss the chance to shine in his home town, injury or no injury. Crabtree himself says he'll play, though his condition is worth keeping an eye on.
Even if Crabtree is forced to miss the game, however, the 49ers have plenty of weapons to replace him. The 49ers’ offensive struggles during the preseason were overstated, as the starting offense moved the ball fairly well, albeit not into the end zone. Now, actually game-planning for an upcoming opponent rather than running a vanilla offense, coordinator Greg Roman will have the first real opportunity of 2014 to make his offense shine.
Even without Crabtree, a receiver cast of Anquan Boldin, Stevie Johnson and Quinton Patton is much better than anything Kaepernick had to work with last year. I don’t think the Cowboys have the defensive depth to cover those three players, much less tight end Vernon Davis, much less handling the running game of Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde. If you add Crabtree on top of all that, look out.
A 49ers win might not see them reach the heights of last year’s opener, where Kaepernick threw for 412 yards and three touchdowns, but it probably involves at least three 50-plus-yard receivers. Boldin won’t go for over 200 yards, but I think you’ll see him at at least 100, with the rest of the team pushing Kaepernick past the 300-yard mark. It doesn’t matter if you’re a one-read quarterback if all of your reads are constantly open.
So, what’s the final prediction?
I think the game will be closer than most oddsmakers are predicting; the 49ers are still rocking from the offseason uncertainty. Opening on the road before the team has really gelled could also be an issue.
Then again, it comes down to this: The 49ers defense, minus some key pieces, is still a league-average defense. The Cowboys defense, minus some key pieces, is historically bad.
I’m expecting a decently high-scoring game down in Dallas, with the 49ers taking a close one at the end. The 49ers will still show some rust at getting into the end zone, but they'll able to move the ball effectively enough to come away with points on more than half of their possessions, which will be enough to win.
Prediction: San Francisco 24, Dallas 23
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.