San Francisco 49ers vs. Dallas Cowboys: 49ers' Week 1 Game Preview
The preseason has concluded, the 53-man roster has been set and the San Francisco 49ers look to start off their 2014 regular-season campaign with a bang as they travel to Dallas to take on the Cowboys in Week 1 on Sunday, September 7 at 4:25 p.m. ET.
This matchup—one of many in the storied rivalry between Dallas and San Francisco—no longer features the same drama that once accompanied 49ers/Cowboys games of decades past.
San Francisco is a powerhouse. Dallas is not. It's as simple as that.
The Cowboys limped through 2013 with an 8-8 record in arguably the worst division in football last year, the NFC East. They ranked nearly last in almost every defensive category and gave up a league-worst 6,645 yards during the season.
Quarterback Tony Romo was sacked 35 times and Dallas' offensive line remained inconsistent at best, relegating a proud franchise into mediocrity.
On the other hand, the 49ers have unfinished business needing to be addressed. Nothing short of a Super Bowl title will suffice in 2014. As the quest for six continues, head coach Jim Harbaugh and Co. will look to finally add the one accolade that has been elusive during his three-year NFL coaching span.
But the 49ers have some issues of their own heading into the regular season.
Off-the-field issues, suspensions, injuries and inconsistency have marked San Francisco's path to the 2014-15 season. Exactly how much this influences the 49ers this season remains to be seen, but San Francisco will look to at least start the year off on the right foot as they travel to AT&T Stadium.
Names like Joe Montana, Steve Young and Jerry Rice versus Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith have now given way to the next cast of stars. It will be Colin Kaepernick versus Tony Romo, Michael Crabtree versus Dez Bryant.
In spite of the Cowboys' recent struggles, this game still begs our attention and not only because of the once-heated rivalry that existed between these two franchises.
Let's take a look at this Week 1 matchup. For the 49ers, it will be the first step toward cementing a playoff berth and a shot at the Super Bowl. For the Cowboys, this game marks a chance to improve upon the various problems that plagued them a season ago.
49ers Preseason Recap
The 49ers went 2-2 in the preseason—dropping their first two preseason games against the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos, respectively, before finishing strong against the San Diego Chargers and Houston Texans.
As is the case with any preseason, these exhibition games revealed very little about San Francisco's true intentions for the regular season itself. The 49ers elected to rest the vast majority of their starters with some not even seeing the field for all four of the exhibition games.
Instead, we saw the likes of numerous backups and bubble-watch players vying for coveted roster spots.
Granted, the first-team offense struggled over the majority of the preseason—an element pointed out in the above video.
While this may be a cause for concern moving forward, one has to keep in mind that the 49ers are a momentum-based team. Running the football and tiring out opposing defenses is a critical element to San Francisco's game plan. Resting starters does not provide the opportunity to do this.
Instead, we saw other headlines that drew our attention.
Ranked high among these was the battle for the No. 2 quarterback position behind Colin Kaepernick. The battle boiled down between offseason trade acquisition Blaine Gabbert and free-agent pickup Josh Johnson.
Gabbert's struggles were widely criticized, but his $2 million contract all but guaranteed the 49ers would not release him. These struggles were highlighted by Johnson's notable play in the 49ers' 40-13 rout of the Texans on August 28—pointed out further by Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News.
As things turned out, both Gabbert and Johnson were added to the 53-man roster.
Additionally, we saw some notable plays from San Francisco's new cast of rookies along with second-year players.
Rookies Jimmie Ward, Kenneth Acker, Carlos Hyde and Dontae Johnson all made their respective impacts during the preseason. Second-year pro Cornellius "Tank" Carradine made his much-anticipated NFL debut and nose tackle Quinton Dial had a strong showing as well.
But the biggest storylines that accompanied the 49ers were not necessarily on the scoreboard or stat sheet. Rather the vast majority transpired off the field.
News and Notes
Aldon Smith's Suspension
The wait for the pending NFL-mandated suspension for Aldon Smith is now over.
Commissioner Roger Goodell handed out a nine-game suspension to Smith on August 29 in the wake of his off-the-field incidents and legal ramifications—the details of which are described by John Breech of CBS Sports.
Aldon Smith is suspended for 9 games. He's eligible to return to the 49ers active roster on Monday, 11/10. pic.twitter.com/c9SHgflDmT— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) August 29, 2014
San Francisco will be without their prolific pass-rusher who nearly set the season record in 2012 with 19.5 sacks.
Additionally, the 49ers will be without All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman nearly as long, which means San Francisco's once vaunted linebacker corps will have to make their adjustments.
Spelling Smith will fall heavily upon the shoulders of second-year pro Corey Lemonier, who posted 12 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and three passes defended in 2013. The Auburn prospect will have a chance to cement his collegiate reputation on a full scale at the start of the season.
Dan Skuta and rookie Aaron Lynch may also see some time in Smith's absence.
Alex Boone Ends Holdout
The long saga of the Alex Boone holdout has come to a close when Boone finally reported to camp on Monday, August 25 per Dan Hanzus of NFL.com.
Boone will be able to make $6 million in salary over the next two years according to Hanzus' report, but the important part is that his presence along the offensive line will help solidify a unit that had some apparent problems during the preseason.
Joe Looney had been holding the starting right guard job during Boone's absence, but the 49ers are clearly a much better team with Boone over Looney at the position.
The only remaining question is whether or not Boone will be rusty entering the regular season.
Formation of the 53-Man Roster
Entering camp, San Francisco's roster stood at 90 players. After the third preseason game versus San Diego, it was whittled down to 75.
Now, the final 53-man roster is put into place.
Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area provides some excellent insight into the final wave of cuts the 49ers made on August 30.
A number of notable cuts included veteran O-lineman Adam Snyder, long snapper Kevin McDermott and special teamers C.J. Spillman, Kassim Osgood and Bubba Ventrone. Second-year project Lawrence Okoye was also waived in the hopes San Francisco could add him to the practice squad.
Osgood has since returned on a one-year deal per 49ers.com.
Many of the waived players were key contributors on San Francisco's special teams unit. The 49ers have elected to get younger and cheaper all around, so we'll see if this unit suffers any sort of drawback in 2014.
Ray McDonald's Arrest
While much of the 49ers' off-the-field woes have centered around Smith, the recent news of defensive end Ray McDonald's arrest for domestic violence charges is another blow to the turbulent weeks prior to the regular season.
After the arrest, McDonald had this to say via KTVU in San Francisco (h/t Michael David Smith of NBC Sports),
The truth will come out, you know. I can’t say too much right now but the truth will come out. Everybody knows what kind of person I am. I’m a good-hearted person.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh said via Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News that he will not tolerate domestic violence among his players, but that he will also not rush to judge McDonald until the legal process has played itself out.
Leading up to Week 1, speculation dominated conversation surrounding whether or not he would play.
49ers’ Baalke: No determination whether Ray McDonald will play http://t.co/jvFfNcyLlE— Around The NFL (@AroundTheNFL) September 2, 2014
But Harbaugh has since announced via Maiocco that McDonald will indeed take the field Sunday.
Michael Crabtree, WR—Questionable
Marcus Lattimore, RB—NFI
Trey Millard, FB—NFI
Keith Reaser, CB—NFI
All injury statuses courtesy of CBS Sports.
Michael Crabtree missed practice last Wednesday nursing a calf injury per CBS Sports. This very well could be just precautionary as the 49ers obviously do not want to rush their No. 1 receiver into the fray, but risking further injury would be detrimental to this particular unit.
Crabtree is from Dallas and has a number of family and friends wanting to see him play per Taylor Price of 49ers.com. It's safe to say Crabtree wants to be out there.
But if he doesn't go, will that mean another veteran like Brandon Lloyd will step up?
Lloyd made the final 53-man roster despite speculation that he could be left out given how crowded the competition was at the position.
Coach Harbaugh said he expects WR Brandon Lloyd to be healthy enough to play in the opener. "We'll see" about OT Anthony Davis.— Steve Corkran (@CorkOnTheNFL) August 30, 2014
Offseason free-agent acquisition Antoine Bethea is in the same boat after suffering a preseason concussion. According to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, Bethea is expected to play against the Dallas Cowboys.
#49ers S Antoine Bethea is going through final concussion protocol today, Jim Harbaugh said. He appears to be on pace to start at Dallas.— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) August 30, 2014
While not listed on the injury report, right tackle Anthony Davis is still working his way back from injury that sidelined him during the preseason. He has missed two practices in a row with a hamstring issue per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
Jonathan Martin would start at right tackle if Davis is out Sunday. According to the San Francisco Chronicle (h/t Igor Mello of CBS Sports), this is what is expected to happen.
Defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey was sent to the injured-reserve list on September 2, which allowed the 49ers to re-sign special teams ace Kassim Osgood to a one-year deal per CBS Sports. Ian Williams and Quinton Dial figure to get the majority of snaps in Dorsey's absence.
X-Factors and Matchups to Watch
Years ago, games between the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers were must-watch contests given the historic rivalry between these two fabled franchises.
This is no longer the case.
Considering the Cowboys' recent struggles and the fact that San Francisco is still an elite team, one should expect the 49ers to overmatch their former rivals in Week 1 at AT&T Stadium.
Still, nothing is ever guaranteed in the NFL, and the phrase "the football isn't round" clearly applies here.
This means the 49ers will have to execute their game plan with the same sort of efficiency and planning that is expected of them entering the season.
Considering this, there are a number of key matchups worth paying attention to.
Tramaine Brock vs. Dez Bryant
Four-year veteran Tramaine Brock will start the season as the 49ers' No. 1 cornerback. His primary assignment: Cowboys' top wide receiver Dez Bryant.
Bryant totaled 1,233 receiving yards on 93 receptions last season, solidifying his role as quarterback Tony Romo's favorite target. At 6'2" and 225 pounds, Bryant has the edge in size over the considerably smaller Brock.
But Brock was named San Francisco's top cornerback for a reason. His stellar play in 2013 warranted the separation between the 49ers and veteran corners Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers during the offseason, so we should expect big things out of Brock this year.
Still, Bryant will be a good test for Brock. While the 49ers' pass-rushers will try their best to upset Romo, Brock will have to hold up his end of the bargain.
Corey Lemonier vs. Cowboys' O-line
Outside linebacker Corey Lemonier has an opportunity to show us that Aldon Smith's absence may not be as critical as initially thought.
Lemonier will match up against Dallas' tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free on Sunday and shall rely on the pressure generated by 49ers' linemen Justin Smith, Ian Williams, Quinton Dial, Tank Carradine and Ray McDonald.
We know defensive coordinator Vic Fangio likes to rush no more than four on defense, which leads us to believe that Lemonier should get plenty of chances in this matchup.
At Auburn, Lemonier totaled 17.0 sacks in three years. Dallas gave up 35 sacks in 2013 alone.
Frank Gore/Carlos Hyde vs. Cowboys' Front 7
This makes for a potentially huge day for running backs Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde as they look to punish the weak interior of Dallas' defense.
Cowboys shade double coverage to VD with McClain & Church and that leaves Boldin/Crabs in single. Utilize dime, Gore/Hyde will dominate.— Vincent Frank (@VincentFrankNFL) September 2, 2014
True, we may see an increase in the 49ers' pass attack against Dallas given the Cowboys' lowly No. 30 rank last season in passing yards against (4,589), but it is also feasible San Francisco holds back on unleashing their new offensive weapons, relying instead upon their bread and butter—the running game.
Dallas' defense was not particularly good against the run last year either. The Cowboys gave up 2,056 yards on the ground in 2013, which ranked 27th in the league.
San Francisco's aerial attack might have been upgraded during the offseason, but the rushing offense remains a staple. As such, look for backs like Gore and Hyde to have a huge day.
49ers X-Factor of the Week: WR Anquan Boldin
Based on the numbers and predictions listed above, we could give this accolade to Gore and/or Hyde.
The 49ers will likely run the ball early and often against Dallas. But as we all know, an effective running game opens up the pass attack. Colin Kaepernick and his receiving weapons may take good advantage of this against a weak Dallas defense.
Remember last season when Anquan Boldin posted 208 yards on 13 receptions in Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers?
We might not speculate he'll put up those stats again, but let's refer to Frank once more on this one.
As Frank stated, the Cowboys are likely to shift their coverage to Davis, which will leave Boldin and Michael Crabtree in single coverage. Crabtree will likely be covered by Cowboys' No. 1 cornerback Brandon Carr who posted three interceptions last year.
This is obviously contingent on Crabtree taking the field, but if he is healthy, Boldin could be the primary beneficiary.
That leaves Boldin up against three-year veteran Morris Claiborne who is listed as questionable per CBS Sports.
If Claiborne is unable to go, the duties will fall to Sterling Moore or rookie Tyler Patmon—matchups that certainly favor the sure-handed Boldin.
Kaepernick will look to take advantage of this mismatch, so we should expect some lofty numbers out of Boldin in Week 1.
The Cowboys' best chance to win this game will fall entirely upon the ability to consistently maintain an offensive presence against the 49ers.
Based on the statistics, we should reasonably assume San Francisco will move the ball effectively against a vulnerable Dallas defense. As long as those drives don't all wind up as field goals, the 49ers should have little problem putting up a good number of points.
San Francisco's defense should overmatch what offense Tony Romo and the Cowboys offense can put up in Week 1. Yes, there are weapons with which Romo can work, but when factoring in Dallas' inability to protect him last year, the 49ers are in position to put plenty of pressure upon him.
In addition, San Francisco will once again look to establish itself as a premier defense against the run. This will have to be done with a shorthanded linebacker corps, but we should still have confidence in this unit's abilities to assist with stopping backs like DeMarco Murray.
On offense, we shouldn't necessarily expect the 49ers to run up the score. Unleashing a high-flying offense will probably not happen in Week 1. San Francisco's coaching staff will likely save that for another date with a tougher defense.
As such, the name of the game will be the clock battle. Establishing long drives that wear down an already questionable Dallas defense will be a prime factor in the 49ers' plans.
This means we'll likely to see plenty of Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde throughout the game. The combination of these long drives and stalwart defense against Romo and Co. will simply be too much for the Cowboys to handle.
Of course we cannot stress the importance of not turning the ball over or committing costly penalties. Those aspects are often what keeps an underdog in the game against an elite team.
If San Francisco can put this all together in the hostile environment of AT&T Stadium—and we should believe they will—there would be little reason to suspect anything else than a 1-0 start to the 49ers' 2014-15 season.
Prediction: 49ers 27, Cowboys 20
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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