The San Francisco 49ers came away with a 28-17 win on the road Sunday, but not all the developments in Dallas were positive.
The offense performed at a higher level than the defense, which has been rare since Jim Harbaugh became coach in 2011. As expected, the team’s offensive identity is making a shift from the two-tight end emphasis coordinator Greg Roman and Harbaugh have implemented since taking over the offense.
Pro Football Focus’ tracking says the 49ers used “11 personnel” (one running back, one tight end, three receivers) on 51.7 percent of their plays after using it just 21.6 percent in 2013.
Brandon Lloyd (22 snaps) and Stevie Johnson’s (19) were used in similar capacities, but Johnson came away with two catches - both were third-down conversions. He helped San Francisco finish 7 of 12 (58 percent) on third down, which would be a drastic improvement from 2013 when it converted 37.1 percent, good for 17th in the league.
To be sure, the Cowboys defense was not the 2000 Ravens Sunday, but third down has been an area the 49ers wanted to improve significantly in the offseason. A deeper compliment of weapons should certainly help.
A negative: the 49ers allowed 5.5 yards per carry on the day. Had Dallas elected to run the ball more often (they had 37 pass attempts and 23 runs), the outcome could have been very different. Perhaps San Francisco doesn't get 14 points off two Tony Romo interceptions, and perhaps the Cowboys score in the red zone instead of throwing a pick to Patrick Willis.
The Cowboys have a good young offensive line and physically handled San Francisco’s front for most of the day, two Justin Smith sacks aside. With NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith out, teams might approach the 49ers defense differently as the season progresses.
That’s where a pre-game decision will face some scrutiny. Coordinator Vic Fangio elected to keep both second-year players Quinton Dial and Tank Carradine inactive in favor of Demarcus Dobbs and Tony Jerod-Eddie. Both players went undrafted, and looked as such, going against the Cowboys offensive line that features three first-round picks.
Dobbs and Jerod-Eddie likely got the edge because of their special teams value and knowledge of assignments. But if the 49ers are going to allow 5.5 yards per carry going forward, teams are going to pass the ball less. Dial is far better against the run than Carradine, whose best use might be in passing situations. But both players are more physically talented than the undrafted incumbents. As the season wears on, it will be up to Fangio to decide whether he wants more physical talent up front, or players he can trust with knowledge of the system backing up Ray McDonald and Smith.
Speaking of McDonald, he played the most snaps of any defensive lineman. He had three quarterback hurries and two tackles.
Dan Skuta had a very strong showing, highlighted by his forced fumble on DeMarco Murray on the game’s third play. After coming to the team having played primarily inside linebacker, he’s grown more comfortable in his role on the outside.
On a first-down play from the 49ers’ 23 on the following drive, Skuta did well to fight off a Dez Bryant block - and draw a holding penalty - to force Cole Beasley to a three-yard loss on a bubble screen with some help from Eric Reid.
Speaking of safety play, Antoine Bethea had a standout day in his debut with San Francisco. He didn’t allow a catch to his cover on two targets and tied Willis with a team-high six tackles.
Coming over from the Colts, there were questions about Bethea’s ability in coverage. It’s just a one-game sample, but the 49ers have to feel good about the way he fits on defense. Bryant wasn’t the same after getting hit (legally) from behind by Bethea on Eric Reid’s first-quarter interception.
Ahmad Brooks didn’t have a great day. His three penalties on the first-quarter field goal drive likely led to more time on the bench in the second half, allowing Aaron Lynch to play 20 snaps overall. Brooks did have a sack, however.
Late in the preseason Fangio brought up concerns about Brooks’ conditioning, but even that shouldn’t contribute to committing penalties, especially in the first half. Fangio said after the game he wanted to rotate pass rushers as often as possible, which meant prolonged stretches for Brooks on the sideline.
Lynch played well in pro debut. He pressured Romo on his interception to Willis and batted down a pass later in the game. For a rookie to get that much playing time under Fangio means the coordinator is liking what he’s seeing early on - unlike Carradine and Dial, for example.
Corey Lemonier was on the field mostly for pass rushing situations (27 pass plays, 11 runs) and didn’t register a hurry or a QB hit. Fangio indicated in a radio interview Tuesday he was unhappy with the team’s pass rush, and Lemonier would seem like an obvious culprit there.
Colin Kaepernick made some outstanding plays, particularly in that first quarter. On his 37-yard completion to Boldin on the first drive he initially looked left, climbed the pocket to avoid pressure and then found Boldin on the right side of the field with a very strong throw.
On Vernon Davis’ first touchdown, Kaepernick made a strong throw off one foot after being tripped up that traveled 33 yards on a line.
Kaepernick’s accuracy and ability to go through progressions look to be improved in the early going. He completed 16 of 23 passes (70 percent), which is well above his 58 percent clip from 2013. But, again, it remains to be seen if he can do it consistently and against defenses more equipped than the Cowboys. Week 1 can often be an outlier, as we learned last season when Kaepernick threw for more than 400 yards against the Packers.
The passing game took a different tone in the second half after the 49ers secured a 25-point lead. With the exception of two long attempts to Davis, most of Kaepernick’s throws were of the short and intermediate variety.
The running game also took on a bigger role as the 49ers were hoping to take as much time off the clock as possible and prevent the Cowboys from making a comeback. Three of their five second-half drives went seven plays or longer and lasted more than four minutes.
But the 49ers did not string together a scoring drive, or a long debilitating possession that’s become a signature in many of their wins over the last three seasons. Kaepernick went 11 of 13 in the first half and just 5 of 10 in the second.
Predictably San Francisco ran the ball 20 times in the second half, which proved to be twice as many as the first. The Cowboys had an idea what was coming and sold out against the run.
With starting right tackle Anthony Davis and right guard Alex Boone likely to join the team soon, the offensive line should be able to pick up its production from Sunday after a relatively lackluster showing against Dallas' front.
*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*
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