3 for 3: Breaking down 49ers @ Cowboys

We take a look at the ins and outs of Sunday's game between the Cowboys and 49ers with CowboysHQ senior columnist KD Drummond.

Niners Digest editor-in-chief Chris Biderman spoke with CowboysHQ senior columnist KD Drummond about Sunday’s season opener between the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys.

San Francisco plays Dallas for the first time since the Cowboys took an overtime win early in Week 2 in Jim Harbaugh’s second game as head coach in 2011. The Cowboys cast of characters is relatively the same on offense, while San Francisco has undergone an extreme makeover since then, including at quarterback with Colin Kaepernick at the helm.

The Cowboys enter the season hoping to finish above .500 after going 8-8 in the last three seasons. The team’s defense, which was statistically the third-worst in league history, is looking to improve despite losing a number of key players.

Biderman: KD, a lot has been made about the Cowboys defense of last year and potentially being even worse in 2014. What kind of impact has new coordinator Rod Marinelli had and can the defense sneak up on people despite being dismantled in the offseason by free agency, injuries and suspensions?

Drummond: Last year's defense was so bad, so terribly bad, for a variety of reasons. Despite its reputation as a defense that requires less thinking and more reacting, the prevailing sentiment from those that have played it was it would take a year and a half to be absorbed. Then, folks would have to admit that the Kiffin version of the Tampa 2 was indeed outdated. Throw on top of that concentrated injuries to the defensive line group, the key to the defense, and that's how you end up that bad.

Demarcus Ware's loss would be harder of he hasn't been a shell of himself already. He was hurt by week 4 and ended the season as a decoy teams didn't gameplan around any longer. However, the team didn't acquire a capable replacement in free agency, and their draft solution Demarcus Lawrence is out until Week 9. Fail.

It would have been hard to duplicate Jason Hatcher's 2013, but Henry Melton with a full offseason could have come close.. Except he hasn't played yet. Fail. Sean Lee is the new leader of the defense. ACL... Fail.

Marinelli will use the corners' strength, press man, much more than the zone they struggled with. He will have the Will linebacker shadow the 3 technique so he deals with less trash. However, with no discernible pass rush, how much will it matter?

The defense should improve as the season goes along and starters return. Anthony Spencer in Week 3, Orlando Scandrick Week 4, Henry Melton and Rolando McClain in game shape Week 4, Cameron Lawrence Week 9, Josh Brent Week 11. But it will probably be too late.

Chris, the 49ers are one of the few teams in the NFL that has resisted the move to the "spread-them-out" brand of offense; often times using two tight ends or an extra lineman or two. Has that changed with the return of Michael Crabtree and the acquisition of Stevie Johnson?

Biderman: It certainly looks that way. No team has run the ball more than the 49ers since Harbaugh took over the offense in 2011, and it’s led to defenses adjusting according.

Last year, San Francisco saw eight-man fronts more than any team in the league. The passing game finished 30th, in part because Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin were the only receiving threats until Crabtree returned following an 11-game absence while recovering from an Achilles tear.

Davis (13) and Boldin (7) accounted for all the team’s TD catches but one. The additions of Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd and rookie fourth-round pick Bruce Ellington would indicate the 49ers are going to be more multiple in their personnel sets in 2014.

When Crabtree came back, Kaepernick’s passing numbers jumped from 173 yards per game to 203. Crabtree is entering a contract year, and, predictably, is in the best shape of his career, down 20 pounds from last season when the injury hampered his conditioning. With Kaepernick entering his third season as starter, expect San Francisco to open things this year to compliment a strong running game.

KD, bad backs never seem to go away and Tony Romo is coming off back surgery this offseason. How much did it affect his workload in training camp and can we expect the same gaudy numbers from the Cowboys’ passing game in 2014?

Drummond: Romo was on a pitch count through the offseason, taking numerous days off. He was full stream ahead by the end of the summer, but one has to wonder how much it affected him absorbing Scott Linehan's version of the Jason Garrett offense.

The back has been an issue for two years now, quiet as it's been kept, so I wouldn't look for a dip in his production at all. He should at least be able to surpass last years' numbers when he simply didn't attack down the field very often, having one of the lowest yards-in-the-air rates of any quarterback.

How much of a dropoff can we expect, going from Navarro Bowman, Aldon Smith and possibly Ray McDonald to their backups? Are the 49ers sticking with vets or will the young kids from the past two days have the chance to step up?

Biderman: There’s no doubt the 49ers defense won’t be as good without Bowman and Smith, arguably their two best defensive players. With those guys in the lineup, San Francisco has been in the top three in scoring defense in each of the last three seasons.

That being said, the 49ers feel pretty good about the players they have stepping into those roles. Look for veteran Dan Skuta to replace Smith at right outside linebacker in base situations with second-year player Corey Lemonier playing in nickel sets. The 49ers selected Lemonier out of Auburn in the third round last year and believe the former defensive end has enough talent to start in the league.

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is also the outside linebackers coach and has worked extensively with both Lemonier and Skuta in the offseason knowing a suspension for Smith was likely.

At inside linebacker, it’s going to be Michael Wilhoite replacing Bowman. Wilhoite stepped in and played for Patrick Willis for two games last season. It’s clear Wilhoite won’t play at the elite level of Bowman, who was a candidate for defensive player of the year in 2013, but he looks like he could develop into an above-average starter in the league. Third-round pick Chris Borland out of Wisconsin could also get some playing time, particularly in short-yardage situations.

Look for Tony Jerod-Eddie, Demarcus Dobbs and second year players Quinton Dial and Tank Carradine to replace McDonald if he doesn’t play Sunday.

Will the 49ers defense be “elite” as it has been with Bowman and Smith out? It’s unlikely. But the coaching staff and talent is in place to remain one of the better units in the NFC.

What kind of changes can we expect from Dallas’ offense with Scott Linehan calling the plays this season?

Drummond: If you combine Dallas' offensive efficiency (top-five scoring offense, lowest number of plays run) with Linehan's high volume offense, you'd expect this offense to be explosive.

Linehan is consistently at the top of the league in numbers of plays ran a year. Dallas didn't employ ball control to offset their defense, they employed clock control. Waiting until the last possible moment to snap on most occasions. That should change.

More importantly, once he became head coach and had to concern himself with his his play calling affected the defense, Garrett became conservative. Linehan is not that. We should see a return of many pages of the playbook that have grown dusty over the years. So is the hope.

Chris, what kind of progression has been seen as Colin Kaepernick enters his fourth year in the league? What are some areas where he could be exploited or contained?

Biderman: Offensive coordinator Greg Roman remade the offense this spring and looked to simplify things, particularly before the snap. The 49ers often called two plays in the huddle and would check to whatever the defense dictated. That process could be gone this year, forcing Kaepernick to make more reads after the snap.

Kaepernick received criticism last year for his inability to get deep into reads, which has been his primary focus this offseason. With an expanding passing game and more weapons, that’s where he’ll need to improve the most.

When it comes to defending Kaepernick, the best way to do it is slowing the running game and forcing the 49ers into long-yardage situations. If the Cowboys can prevent San Francisco from getting good yardage on the ground in early downs and force Kaepernick to beat them from the pocket, he could struggle. And it’s also imperative to contain Kaepernick inside the pocket and not let him break containment.

It will be interesting to see if Dallas’ defensive linemen can stay in their lanes while running Rod Marinelli’s scheme that relies heavily on stunts. If they can effectively stunt and maintain gab integrity, it could prevent Kaepernick from breaking out of the pocket and making plays on the move.

Score Predictions

Drummond: 31-27, Cowboys
Biderman: 34-24, 49ers

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