49ers vs. Cowboys: What we learned

Five things we learned about the 49ers during their 20-13 exhibition victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday night at Cowboys Stadium.

THE NINERS NEED VETERANS ADAM SNYDER AND DAVID BAAS BACK WITH THEIR STARTING OFFENSIVE LINE Dallas has one of the NFL's better defensive front sevens, so there's no shame in having trouble against that big, quick and talented unit. But when the first units were in the game, the 49ers pretty much got pushed around in the trenches whenever they attempted to pass as quarterback Shaun Hill often was hurried into errant throws. The running game was nowhere near what it was the previous week against Oakland, and the Niners scored only three points in the five possessions Hill was in the game during the first half mainly because San Francisco's line couldn't give the quarterback the time he needed to throw and keep the team moving through the air. Barry Sims is not the answer at right tackle as he struggles in pass protection, and with Marvel Smith having left the team to retirement, the 49ers are much better with Snyder at right tackle. But Snyder sprained his knee against the Raiders last week and is unlikely to play again until the regular-season opener, leaving Sims to man the right side until he returns. That probably won't do much for the progress of the offense in Friday's preseason finale at San Diego. Tony Wragge is a bit more competent at guard, but the 49ers need to see what the brutish Baas can do after missing all of the summer so far with a foot injury. Baas is likely to return to practice this week. After showing a lot of promise at the end of last season, the rebuilt line has not progressed the past few weeks and needs two of its regular starters in the lineup to do so.

THE 49ERS NEED MICHAEL CRABTREE AT WIDE RECEIVER
There. We finally said it. With Brandon Jones out and Josh Morgan failing to distinguish himself much as a starter with just one reception in the past two seasons games, the 49ers clearly need another dimension in their passing game to get it going. Hill got nothing going down the field against the Cowboys and his only reliable target was veteran Arnaz Battle, who got open for a game-high four receptions. The rest of San Francisco's front-line receivers have had trouble getting open throughout the preseason. Crabtree now is the only player from the 2009 NFL draft who remains unsigned, and if he wants to make any impact in the early part of the season, he needs to begin practicing immediately. The word going around is that Crabtree wont sign until the week before the regular season opener, but it's pretty clear the 49ers need his talent right now to add some spark to their passing attack.

THE DEFENSE IS LEARNING THE SECRET OF PRODUCING TURNOVERS
One of the major reasons the 49ers remain undefeated after three preseason games is their plus-8 turnover differential. They had two more takeaways Saturday, and both of them were key turning points in keeping the 49ers in the game and preventing the Cowboys from taking over. Second-year safety Reggie Smith recovered a fumble for his third consecutive game with a takeaway, and Mark Roman had a pivotal interception near the Dallas goal line that he returned 57 yards. The 49ers led the NFL in preseason turnover differential entering the game and did nothing to hurt that standing against the Cowboys. They also were second in the league in interceptions before adding to that total. San Francisco's defense didn't play particularly well Saturday – in fact, it was that unit's worst game of the preseason – but the big turnovers were the difference between victory and defeat. It has been evident this summer that 49ers defenders are much more aggressive in trying to make plays on the football and get it out of the hands opponents, and that's a trend that needs to continue into the regular season.

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT
Yes, they are. For the second consecutive week, rookie quarterback Nate Davis led the 49ers from behind in the fourth quarter to pull out a late victory, and he continued to show real poise and progress in directing the offense. The 49ers also got a big performance from rookie running back Kory Sheets, who scored both San Francisco touchdowns, and both young players greatly improved their chances of making the final roster this season. For the second week in a row, San Francisco's young reserves clearly outplayed the opposition, and this bodes well for the team's depth and also the young talent on the rise that will be pushing the players ahead of it on the depth chart. Young defenders such as safety Reggie Smith, defensive lineman Kentwan Balmer and cornerback Tarell Brown also made an impact during the game and continue to show progress, as did rookie fullback Brit Miller when matched with Sheets in the backfield. Both of those young backs seem destined to stick around with the team, whether it be on the final roster or the practice squad.

THE 49ERS ARE RESPONDING TO MIKE SINGLETARY'S COACHING
We already know that the 49ers respond to Singletary, the leader. But what about Singletary on the sidelines as a game-day coach? That was a big downfall for his predecessor, Mike Nolan, who couldn't get it done on game day. But Singletary continues to show a cool stoicism on the sidelines that gives the appearance he always is in control no matter what is happening on the field or on the scoreboard. The Cowboys were pushing the 49ers around on both sides of the ball in the early going when the first units were in the game, but Singletary stayed on his troops and didn't let the game get away from the Niners, who trailed just 10-3 at halftime though actually being outplayed by a wider margin during the first half. Singletary made the decision to go for a short field goal late in the game on fourth-and-1 deep in Dallas territory, and that proved to be a turning point toward victory as the Niners made the kick to tie the game, got the ball back after their defense held, then drove the length of the field to the winning touchdown. The 49ers haven't been as good as their record during the preseason, but Singletary has found a way to keep them in games and respond when it counts, and that's a big reason the 49ers are 3-0 after three exhibition games for the first time since 2003.


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