On the surface, the San Francisco 49ers look like they have an easy task when taking on the Cowboys’ defense that finished as the third-worst in league history in 2013.
And while Dallas’ personnel looks like it’s taken a step back from that dreadful season via free agency, injuries and suspensions, it has a new coordinator in Rod Marinelli and an entire offseason of reading about how bad it was (we discussed how bad the Cowboys defense could be here).
Is this a recant of that piece? Not necessarily. But a new scheme, a new season, and a right side of the an in-flux San Francisco offensive line could make things a little tougher than anticipated. That’s where we’ll start with our three keys:
Fighting off the “pirate stunts”
Left tackle Joe Staley said this week the 49ers watched film from their win over the Bears in 2012 to look at Marinelli’s defensive line concepts, that include variations of "pirate stunts." We took a look at that same game and came away with a few conclusions.
These stunts will come when Dallas’ linemen attack from different angles and gaps than where they line up, making it important San Francisco’s blockers not overcommit to one guy in one gap. Good peripheral vision for the offensive line will be key.
With Jonathan Martin starting at right tackle in place of Anthony Davis, who is out with a hamstring injury, his play against Jeremy Mincy will be under the microscope. Martin allowed 13 sacks in 23 starts with the Dolphins, according to Pro Football Focus. His lateral agility and pass blocking has proven to be good enough in the preseason. But his mononucleosis suffered in the spring zapped his strength. He’s still working his way back.
Mincy had three sacks in each of the last two seasons with the Cowboys and Jaguars.
Martin's strength will be put to the test when stunting linemen coming from the inside over the outside with momentum will be running into him with force. How he holds up there will be paramount to a successful day protecting Colin Kaepernick.
For Mike Iupati, his struggles in pass protection might come from over committing too quickly, as he did in the third preseason game against the Chargers, and not having the patience required to absorb the stunt. Should he commit to an interior lineman who stunts to the outside, it could leave an open lane up the middle for a stunting end or blitzing inside linebacker.
In that game against the Bears in 2012, Kaepernick’s first career start, the 49ers tried to neutralize those stunts with a lot of pre-snap action. That’s been one of Roman’s calling cards; changing the play at the line scrimmage based on what the defense dictates.
Sunday, the 49ers’ clear advantage comes against the Cowboys’ linebackers. While Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs weren’t exactly at the peak of their physical powers in 2012, they were still very good at diagnosing plays and filling lanes behind those stunts. How the Cowboys’ combination of Rolando McClain, Bruce Carter, Kyle Wilber and Justin Durant handle those responsibilities is very much in question. There’s no doubt inside linebacker Sean Lee will be missed, who is gone for the year with an ACL tear.
Establish the running game
It sounds obvious, but in the lead up to the season, much of the discussion surrounding the 49ers offense revolves around more three-wide receiver sets thanks to an influx of talent on the outside at Roman’s disposal.
But the best way to keep Tony Romo off the field against a defense lacking two all-pros in the linebacker corps and a remade secondary remains with a strong rushing attack.
The 49ers faced more loaded fronts than any team in the league in 2013 and it’s likely the Cowboys will keep that trend alive. San Francisco has the talent along the offensive line to overcome those looks. But with Davis out and Alex Boone back for just one week after holding out the entire offseason for a new two-year deal, it’s no certainty the 49ers will be their typical road-grading selves.
Establishing their tempo with the running game will be the goal. The Cowboys will find ways to score, but the 49ers need to do everything they can to shorten the game for Romo’s passing attack by controlling clock. And that comes with long, sustained drives built on the running game.
The Cowboys defense isn’t all that experienced, and Roman’s complicated running scheme could make things tough on Marinelli and his personnel. Misdirections, pulling guards and read-option looks are tools in Roman’s shed that could open things up for Kaepernick and the passing game.
Beat man coverage on the outside
The strength of Cowboys’ porous (in initial appearance) defense are cornerbacks Brandon Carr and former first-round pick Morris Claiborne. They were out of their element in Monte Kiffin’s “Tampa 2” scheme last season that relied heavily on zone concepts.
Playing man plays into their strengths, which is also the strength of San Francisco’s receivers. Michael Crabtree has excellent shake and at the line, as does Stevie Johnson. Anquan Boldin will continue to work in the slot where he excels at making grabs in small spaces.
But it will be up Crabtree and Boldin to find freedom on the outside to help Kaepernick open up the passing game, which, in turn, will open things up on the ground.
And look for Vernon Davis to stretch the field vertically against Dallas' linebackers and safeties.
The No. 1 objective for San Francisco’s offense this offseason has been to prevent teams from stacking the box against the run. Dallas’ front seven doesn't appear to pose the stiffest test, but stranger things have happened in the unpredictable NFL.
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