49ers vs. Cowboys: Thumbs up and thumbs down

Which way does the thumb turn for the 49ers after their 20-13 preseason victory over the Dallas Cowboys, including QBs Nate Davis and Shaun Hill, RBs Kory Sheets and Glen Coffee, the return of LB Pat Willis, an insufficient pass rush, Andy Lee's board-banging punts, the "Taser" formation, CBs Tarell Brown and Eric Green, WRs Arnaz Battle, Josh Morgan, Michael Spurlock and much more? Check inside.

Thumbs up: Sure, it came against a defense that was featuring some guys who won't even be playing in the NFL come September, but let's hear it again for the way rookie quarterback Nate Davis led the 49ers' offense down the field in the second half, leading the team from behind to victory in the fourth quarter for the second consecutive week. The 49ers have something in Davis, their fifth-round draft pick, and they have to find a way to keep him on their roster this season. Davis displayed a live and accurate arm, particularly on a few well-thrown deep outs, and showed some real pocket presence and good decision making while leading the 49ers on drives that produced 17 of their 20 points. He's a keeper, and for the second week in a row, he made the 49ers a winner.

Thumbs up: We feel pretty comfortable saying that Kory Sheets made a legitimate bid to make the team Saturday night with another impressive performance rushing the football. It wasn't just that Sheets led the 49ers with 42 yards rushing and scored both of San Francisco's touchdowns. It was the way he did it. His vault into and over the pile for the 49ers' first TD was big-time and certainly big-league, and the shifty speedster displayed surprising power while churning his legs forward and through Dallas defenders on a nine-yard run up the middle for the winning touchdown with 33 seconds remaining. On yet another run, Sheets displayed great athleticism in the open field to both elude and leap over defenders. Sheets has made tremendous progress since training camp began to become a serious contender for the final roster.

Thumbs down: We really, REALLY like Shaun Hill as the 49ers' starting quarterback, but this is about the worst we have seen Hill play in a game since joining the 49ers. Maybe he was shaking off some rust, but Hill didn't do much to move the San Francisco offense in the first half, and the precision and accuracy in the passing game that are some of his biggest assets seemed to be missing against front-line Dallas defenders who put a lot of heat on him. If the third preseason game is supposed to be a dress rehearsal for the regular season, Hill didn't produce a lot to get excited about or inspire confidence while completing 9 of 17 passes for 79 yards for a passer rating of 65.6.

Thumbs up: It only took one play to show that the 49ers are better on defense when Patrick Willis is part of that unit. Playing for the first time in the preseason after returning from a leg injury, Willis showed his speed and quick-striking ability on the game's first play to limit a pass from Tony Romo to Jason Witten to a 2-yard gain. Willis was all over the field during his time in the game and finished with four tackles, teaming with Takeo Spikes to give the 49ers a strong tandem in the middle that they'll be counting on plenty this season.

Thumbs down: Dallas quarterback Tony Romo had enough time in the pocket to dial former girlfriend Jessica Simpson on his cell phone because the 49ers' pressure on passing downs was virtually non-existent again. Romo had all the time he needed to find receivers, particularly on third downs, including one third-and-long situation when he had a full eight seconds in the pocket before locating a target that finally came open over the middle. The Cowboys have three Pro Bowlers on their offensive line, but San Francisco's pass rush is going to have to be better than this if the 49ers' defense wants to be better than average.

Thumbs up: But when the 49ers finally did get a bit of pressure on Romo, with Parys Haralson coming up the middle on a stunt, it showed how much that can mean for San Francisco's defense. Haralson hit Romo as he threw toward the end zone, and Mark Roman came up to intercept an underthrown pass near the goal line, returning it 57 yards into Dallas territory. That was the seventh interception for the opportunistic 49ers in nine quarters of preseason play, showing the kind of propensity for takeaways that will be a must if the defense is to take the next step to elite level this season.

Thumbs up: We're thinking that Roman will help the 49ers this year more in his new role as a backup swing safety than he did as the starting free safety last year. Besides his interception, Roman had a game-high five tackles and continued his solid preseason play in the secondary.

Thumbs up: One element of Jimmy Raye's offense that ought to help San Francisco's developing offense move forward is the hot reads and designed plays that have 49ers quarterbacks finding their running backs out of the backfield on passing downs. The 49ers had 11 receptions to running backs, several of them for nice gains that kept the chains moving.

Thumbs up: Frank Gore wasn't in the game long, but when he was, you saw both he and San Francisco's first-unit line pushing the pile forward at the end of runs. The first backup in the game after Gore, rookie Glen Coffee, also displayed some nice surge forward at the end of runs. That's what power rushing attacks are supposed to do, and that's what the 49ers are doing.

Thumbs down: Coffee has been great running the football during the preseason, and he had yet another nice showing Saturday with 34 yards on eight carries. But an important part of playing running back in the NFL is also blocking in pass protection, and the third-round draft pick failed to pick up a blitzing linebacker when the Cowboys brought the house in a third-down situation in the second quarter, resulting in a sack of Shaun Hill and a punt that was returned deep into San Francisco territory. Coffee also had trouble picking up a blitzing defensive back on third down during San Francisco's first offensive series of the second half, resulting in Hill forcing an incomplete pass while under heavy pressure and another 49ers punt.

Thumbs up: It's nothing new to see Andy Lee sending punts into orbit, but you still had to get a kick out of him banging the football into the video boards that hang over the field at Cowboys stadium. Lee hit the board with one of his final kicks during warmups and came close with a couple of others. That board is 90 feet above the field, so it's fair to say that Lee can get the ball up in the air with the best of them.

Thumbs up: And a quick kudos to that beautiful new Cowboys Stadium, now located in the Dallas suburb of Arlington. The 49ers officials in attendance hopefully were taking some notes of how to do it with a new stadium.

Thumbs down: We love the wildcat formation and the fact that the 49ers are incorporating it into their offense labeled as the "Taser" in coordinator Jimmy Raye's system, but we don't want to see them use the formation for a simple handoff into the middle of the line on third-and-10 in enemy territory when all the 49ers need is about five yards to at least get in position for a field goal. That's how the Niners ended their first drive Saturday, with Michael Spurlock taking the snap from center in shotgun formation, but failing to do anything with it besides a handoff up the middle to Gore, who was limited to a four-yard gain that left the Niners just out of range for a Joe Nedney field-goal attempt.

Thumbs up: The indomitable Arnaz Battle showed why he has been such an important part of San Francisco's passing game in recent seasons and may be again this season now that he is healthy. Battle just goes out there, plays a steady all-around game and makes plays, including an excellent diving catch for a 19-yard gain on third down to keep San Francisco's first scoring driving moving at the end of the first half. Battle had game-high totals of four receptions for 54 yards, ending up in his hands with all but one of the throws that came in his vicinity.

Thumbs down: The run-blocking was good against Dallas' strong front seven, but the pass blocking left plenty to be desired. The 49ers allowed three sacks and six other hits on their quarterbacks. Saturday's news of Marvel Smith's retirement was a big letdown for the 49ers, because Smith displayed during this summer that he obviously still can play and was going to be a strong top backup at the tackle position for the team this year. With starting right tackle Adam Snyder out, the 49ers had to go with Barry Sims as the starter at the position Saturday. If Sims can't do better in pass protection than this, the 49ers will have to consider other options to back up Snyder once he returns for the start of the regular season.

Thumbs down: Against one of the NFL's biggest and best offensive lines that features rugged runner Marion Barber behind it, San Francisco's run defense looked a little soft on the edges. That's the place to run against a 3-4 scheme, so the 49ers need to tighten up in that area.

Thumbs up: We like what cornerback Eric Green did in his first game in a 49ers uniform, playing tight in coverage and forcing a fumble after Dallas had driven deep into San Francisco territory.

Thumbs up: Once again, surging second-year safety Reggie Smith displays that he has a true nose for the football. Smith had two interceptions in the exhibition opener, a fumble recovery last week against Oakland, then came up with another key fumble recovery Saturday that helped turn the game in San Francisco's favor. Smith was busy throughout his time in the game with three tackles – he had another on special teams – and solid play in coverage.

Thumbs down: Starting strong safety Michael Lewis has been banged up most of the preseason, so it was not good to see Lewis leave the game in the early going after taking a blow to the helmet. Lewis is OK, but he did not return to the game, and he needs time on the field to get in sync with the rest of the first-team defense.

Thumbs down: Josh Morgan's quiet preseason as a starting receiver continued when he couldn't bring in two catchable passes that came his way. If you can get your hands on the football, you need to catch it, and Morgan failed to produce on those two opportunities Saturday. If he's going to be a starter on this team, he needs to make those catches, or at least one of them.

Thumbs up: On his 20-yard reception in the third quarter, Delanie Walker once again showed that all the 49ers have to do is get the football in his hands, because he knows what to do with it when it's there.

Thumbs up: Speaking of knowing what to do with the football… Michael Spurlock showed burst and breakaway ability on his 35-yard reception that set up the winning touchdown. Spurlock helped set up San Francisco's other touchdown with a 15-yard reception and continues to make a strong roster bid at wide receiver.

Thumbs up: After missing most of training camp and the first two preseason games with a toe injury, Tarell Brown is back making plays at cornerback. The third-year veteran made a nice return to the secondary Saturday and served notice that maybe its not a slam dunk quite yet that Dre Bly will be San Francisco's starting right cornerback this year.

Thumbs up: It doesn't really mean a lot because it's the preseason and all, but the 49ers went to Dallas and won a game on the road against one of the NFL's top-tier teams, giving them a 3-0 start in the exhibition season for the first time since 2003. It's also the first time they've won more than twice in the preseason since that year, a strong indication the team is responding to the stoic presence and leadership coach Mike Singletary is providing on the sidelines.

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