49ers vs. Cowboys: 6 Things to Watch in Sunday's Crucial Game Against Dallas
In terms of growth, the players and coaches on the San Francisco 49ers are still getting acquainted.
It’s been eight weeks, you say, since the start of training camp, what more is there to know?
But that's a minute of time it takes to assess, understand and apply all the needed elements that go into shaping an NFL team for the rigors of a 16-game schedule.
In college, a powerhouse team can have 4-5 easy games to force its will on a weaker opponent. Offensively, schemes are installed, plays run with a high level of efficiency, yards get gained and touchdowns scored. Defensively, it’s much of the same, and a team develops its identity rather quickly.
In the NFL, the evolution never stops. Each team has to adapt and adjust as the season develops.
In light of last Sunday’s 33-17 win over Seattle, the 49ers left a lot of questions unanswered. Their run-first offense barely broke 200 yards, and though quarterback Alex Smith completed 15-of-20 passes, the pass total came to 124, and they failed on 12 of 13 third downs.
At the same time, the defense limited Seattle to 219 yards, with 55 coming on their last touchdown. Take that play away, and Seattle would have finished with 100 passing yards, remarkable for a team so leaky in coverage a year ago.
But it’s too early to say the 49ers' defense is developing into a dominating force.
So when does a team know what kind of team it is?
"That goes through the entire year," 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. "All year. It never stops. Every defense plays you a little different. There’s a blitzing team, a coverage team, a Tampa-2 team, a 4-3, a 3-4, a zone team. So for every player during the year, you get to see how he reacts. Some weeks he has really tough matchups, some weeks it goes to other player. It takes time to get a feel how the entire group matches up with the team you’re playing. It’s constantly evolving."
Sunday's game at Candlestick Park against Dallas portends to be a crucial match for both. The Cowboys are coming off a difficult 27-24 loss to the New York Jets.
"They’ll come looking for blood," 49ers receiver Braylon Edwards said. The 49ers, in turn, have a chance to prove to the rest of the league that they’re ready to play to their talent level.
From my time in the 49ers' training facility, here are six things to watch for in Sunday's game against Dallas.
Wary of Ware
Everyone in scarlet and gold said the same thing.
He's an elite player, one of the game's best—if not the best—defensive players. DeMarcus Ware (No. 94) of the Cowboys has the attention of everyone in Santa Clara.
The 49er coaches talked about Ware's, "great length and great strength."
In other words, he’s big and fast.
"He’s so explosive with his hands," 49ers tackle Joe Staley, who will have to deal with Ware regularly, said. "He's so explosive as a player. And he makes it look so easy. He sets it up really well, and gives you a wider array of moves. He doesn’t really rely on one move."
Roman called him one of the game’s best players, and the offensive game plan starts with the linemen and backs finding out where No. 94 is. Of course, you can expect the 49ers to rotate a tight end to his side to help out Stately and right tackle Anthony Davis.
"He’s a Pro Bowl player, Defensive player of the year . Obviously you have to know where he’s at all times."
Is it best to charge into him or lay back and dance?
"I’m not going to that, or talk about what my plan is," Staley sniffed.
If you weren’t at Candlestick for last week's Seattle game, there's hardly a way to describe what the wind was doing.
But then, that’s Candlestick Park in the fall.
"It’s harder to deal with the wind in the first part of the season," 49ers punter Andy Lee said. "Normally, later in the year it gets a little better. In other places it's easier to kick early in the season because later in the season the weather changes so much."
The tricky winds play with the passing game, the kicking game and the minds of players. For example, Lee said if you watch the smoke from the fireworks used during the national anthem, it shows how crazy the wind patterns can be.
"As the smoke rises it will go one way, then the other and then as it gets higher it actually gets blown down," Lee pointed out. "At some levels there is a down force."
He's noticed the wind affecting the ball in the 18-inch drop from his hands to his foot. "The ball can move as much as six inches and turn the nose inward."
That can mean a less-than-perfect punt, which can spell poor coverage and potential big plays. As an example, Ted Ginn Jr.'s 55-yard punt return for a TD came off a short punt that went into the wind.
It’s one thing that both Dallas and the 49ers will have to deal with. In that aspect, the 49ers are used to it (and could also be one reason why there were so many short Alex Smith passes; less distance to allow the wind to knock the ball around). It will be up to Dallas to adjust.
"I can’t release the secrets, but there are secrets," Lee continued. "I’ll say kicking field goals can get tough at times. I know more about the punting, but I will say is not to worry about the wind. That's where it gets tough, you start to overplay the wind. It's really more of a mental game in there. The wind does affect the ball, but if you start trying to figure out what the wind will do to the ball, you’ll be off. The wind doesn't do the same thing every time."
Who's on the Corner?
The Cowboys are hurting at cornerback, and it's not clear who will play or how much. Their best player, Terence Newman, has yet to overcome training camp injuries.
"We don’t know," Roman admitted. "But they’ll have their bases covered. It changes things a little bit. But if you look at their defense form personnel and scheme, they’re pretty good. Rob Ryan has a very diverse history, dealing with a lot of different schemes. It starts with Ware and Anthony Spencer on the edges, with Ware obviously capable of an elite pressure."
Roman, however, said he expects a full array of defensive schemes, courtesy of Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan (pictured).
“For Dallas, you have to be ready for everything,” Roman continued. “Ready for blitz, for three-man rush. His is a very diverse scheme. It’s got some Buddy Ryan, some new England and Bill Belichick, and Rob was with the Raiders, and there’s some of that. It could be blitz, it could be something else. So you have to be ready for everything."
Yes, receiver Braylon Edwards (pictured) said the 49ers can improve on last week’s passing stats.
Yes, they can throw deep.
"It’s just a matter of calling the plays and being confident in them," Edwards said. "We know what pass plays can work, and we just have to get better and better. We watched them on film We know what pass plays we can work and we’ll get better and better this week."
Does it get frustrating as a receiver to see so many running plays?
"I don’t know about the average receiver, but I like winning," Edwards said. “We won. It wasn’t the prettiest game on offense, but we got it done, we did the necessary things to win. We put together a big drive in the fourth quarter, and then we didn’t get the chance to put the offense back on the field and see how we would have fared in the waning moments because of Ted Ginn Jr. But that’s not a bad thing.
"That’s something to build on. Being a wideout, of course, we want the ball every play, but it can’t happen like that. You learn patience, and within patience you become a better team."
For those who want to know, Michael Crabtree still didn’t run at full speed in practice. Edwards and Joshua Morgan are the top two wideouts with Ted Ginn Jr. being No. 3. But Roman said Crabtree will be rotated in.
Stopping Felix and Co.
Stopping Felix and Co.
Defensively, Fangio pointed out that Dallas did a very good job running the ball against the Jets.
"I thought their guards at center played well in the game against the Jets the other night. These guys ran the ball well against the team that was loading up to [stop the run]," Fangio said. "It may not have looked it statistically, but they were competitive running the ball the whole game. That played a big part I think in them getting the 24 points and having those other opportunities for more."
Felix Jones led the Cowboys with 44 of the team's total of 64 rushing yards.
But he's just one element of a very dangerous offense.
"Their overall talent level just jumps off the screen at you," Fangio said. "Starting off with Tony Romo, Dez Bryant (pictured), Jason Witten, Jones, Miles Austin, you name it. These guys are loaded up."
Make a Statement
One way to understand the rather bland statements coming out of 49erville is that coaches and players do not consider the NFL regular season to consist of 16 games.
Rather, it’s really a one-game season for 16 weeks (with a bye worked in). Does that make sense?
Each game is its own entity, unique.
For example, was there anything to learn from the Seattle game that carries over to Dallas?
"Two totally different systems, totally different skill set in their personnel," Roman said by way of saying no. "A game is a life unto itself. It's the only game that counts now."
And that's what makes it so hard to determine who or what the 49ers are. The best we can say is that they are relatively young, led by a new coaching staff and it's early in the season.
"I think we do understand our personality, but it's just a matter of putting things together," Edwards, who came over from the Jets as a free agent, said. "There were no offseason team activities, no offseason, and we have different faces and a whole new system, and with all of that crammed into training camp. We know who we are, but we're figuring out how we can explain it and put it on the field. It’s going to take time."
But consider what happened with the Jets last year, Edwards added.
"Look at us the Jets. We lost the first game against Baltimore. We didn’t score a point. We didn't do well on first down. We didn't have a lot of yards. And then we beat New England [in the second week] and went on a nine-game winning streak. Something happens. Something snaps. It was Game 2. We scored the points to win the game. We put up 28 and we just rolled from there."
Otherwise known as a "Statement Game."