The Cowboys present some unique challenges on offense, particular with their talented offensive line and batch of playmakers. Dez Bryant is one of the best wideouts in the league and will certainly challenge new starting corners Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver.
The Cowboys would like to be more balanced in 2013 under new passing game coordinator Scott Linehan, although his history with the Detroit Lions might suggest otherwise. But Linehan never had a back as capable as Murray during his time in the NFC North.
Here are three keys for the 49ers’ defense Sunday.
Move Romo off his spot
The best way to effectively stop any passing game is pressuring the quarterback and forcing him to think about where he is in the pocket before he can locate his targets down field. Dallas has an athletic line that should be able to combat a good speed rush.
That’s where Justin Smith could become a factor. He often jokes about lacking moves, but his brute strength could be the key to combating the Cowboy’s athleticism up front. Look for the 49ers to give Tank Carradine a shot in nickel situations to get to the passer as well. Carradine is the most quick-twitch player of any 49er along the defensive line, which makes him a candidate for playing time as the season goes on in passing situations.
Lemonier will be tasked with going against one of the league’s budding left tackles in Tyron Smith, who signed a massive eight-year, $110 million contract this offseason. Lemonier’s speed rushing might not work against Smith, who’s one of the most athletic at the position.
Ahmad Brooks’ weight issues will be put to the test. Vic Fangio said during the final stages of the preseason Brooks was carrying more weight than he should be, and Brooks admitted as much. He will lose that weight as the season goes on, but his agility and quickness could be something to watch in Week 1 against right tackle Doug Free.
Don’t get spread thin against the run
With NaVorro Bowman out, opponents will look to run against the 49ers when they’re spread out with an extra defensive back in their nickel package. Jimmie Ward was brought in to play nickel because of his physicality against the run. But when he plays, he will be replacing nose tackle Ian Williams.
Depending on how things go against the run in those sets, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio could keep the base package on the field when Dallas goes to three-receiver looks. That could allow the Cowboys to take advantage of a linebacker covering a slot receiver.
But if the 49ers can slow down Murray and the running game in three-wideout looks with Ward on the field, they will be in better position against Romo’s passing attack.
Control aggression against Bryant
The new starting corner tandem of Brock and Culliver share one key characteristic that differentiates from former starters Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown: aggression.
In 2012, when Culliver was arguably the 49ers’ best corner, he had 10 pass breakups thanks to an aggressive style where he would often play the ball and not his man. With a year off, that ability might not fully be there. It could lead to trouble, as it did in the Super Bowl loss to the Ravens.
Against one of the most physically gifted receivers in the league in Bryant, it would behoove Culliver to play the receiver and not the ball to eliminate risk.
”I don’t know that anybody has a favorable matchup with him,” Fangio said of Bryant. “He’s such a big receiver and very athletic at the ball, but you just got to go out there and compete. And one thing our two corners will do, they will compete. We’ll try and help them some when we can, but you can’t help on one guy every play in a game. So, our guys are going to have to stand up and do a good job on him when they’re assigned to him one-on-one, whether it be a man or a zone.”
It took less than a season for Brock to become the team’s No. 1 corner after being fourth on the depth chart to start last year. In coverage, he allowed a 57.3-percent completion rate and broke up nine passes.
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