3 Keys to Victory

The Cowboys travel west Sunday afternoon for a game that could be either the perfect tonic for a team left reeling by a stunning loss, or the ultimate "trap" game.

There's now way to sugarcoat it: the Niners were terrible last year -- terrible enough to earn the first overall pick in the NFL draft, which they spent on the quarterback of the future: Utah's Alex Smith. The team's talent was minimal, and the roster was littered with players who had potential but little experience. The 49ers still have a lot of young players, but there are indications that many of them are starting to mature, and the team has made some key offseason additions, which -- while not garnering some of the national headlines afforded to transactions like the trade of Randy Moss from Minnesota to Oakland -- have filled in some of the holes on the roster with valuable talents.

The biggest question surrounding this weekend's game is: which team will show up Sunday? In just two games, two San Francisco teams have taken the field. In the season opener, the Niners shocked the St. Louis Rams, 28-25. A week later, they were blasted in Philadelphia, 42-3. Upon closer inspection, however, the 49ers weren't much better in the win over St. Louis than they were in their loss to the Eagles. The statistics from the Philadelphia game were as lopside as the final score. But against the Rams, the numbers wouldn't have suggested a San Francisco win: St. Louis had 26 first downs to San Francisco's 12. The Niners mustered just 34 rushing yards, and while they converted every chance they had in the red zone, they only made it in to the red zone twice in the whole game.

So what do the Cowboys need to do to win Sunday?

Help Rob Petitti
This isn't meant as a shot at the Cowboys' rookie RT. For a guy who's coming up on the third game of his career, Petitti has done a fine job -- against two of the better defenses (San Diego and Washington). However, in the San Francisco 49ers, Petitti and the Cowboys will face a team that will present the rookie blocker with a number of challenges.

1. There's not that much film on the San Francisco defense, which switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 (sound familiar?) in the offseason after defensive guru Mike Nolan was named head coach. Nolan is trying to do many of the same things with the 49er defense that he did with the Baltimore Ravens, where he was defensive coordinator prior to heading west. Teams rarely show much in the exhibition season, making the tapes of San Francisco's preseason games relatively meaningless. The defense played decently in the 49ers' season-opening win over the Rams, but (like the offense) was shredded in the second game at Philadephia.

2. The San Francisco defensive line is geared around veteran DE Bryant Young, who not only will be able to show Petitti some new looks, but also will be able to determine quickly the strong and weak areas of Petitti's game. Head coach Bill Parcells said this week that when he was head coach of the New England Patriots, he was very impressed with Young at Notre Dame, brought Young in to Foxboro and gave serious thought to making Young the Patriots' first-round draft picks.

Spotlight: The Corners
Considering the 49ers run the ball about as well as this writer does (leading rusher Kevin Barlow has 56 yards on 24 carries for an average of 2.3 yards per carry, and rookie Frank Gore has 32 yards on eight carries), if the 49ers are going to win games, the offense must move the chains -- and reach the end zone -- by taking to the air.

WR Arnaz Battle leads the team with nine receptions and is the only 49er with more than 100 receiving yards (103). With the 49ers having yet to complete a pass to a tight end, and the running game more of a jogging game, Henry and Newman could just about disable the entire San Francisco offense if they can shut down Battle and WR Brandon Lloyd.
3. Young won't be Petitti's only challenge. Like the Cowboys, the 49ers like to sprinkle in occasional 4-3 fronts, in which case OLB Julian Peterson will drop his hand down as a pass-rushing DE. Whereas Young is a big, strong, savvy veteran, Peterson presents an entirely different set of challenges for Petitti. Peterson is stronger than his 6-3, 235-pound frame might suggest, and has outrageous speed and quickness. Dallas will be best-served by leaving a tight end next to Petitti when Peterson moves to DE, or at least leave a RB in to chip at Peterson if he gets into the backfield.

Contain Tim Rattay
Nobody is going to mistake Rattay for Michael Vick, but he does move around a bit. As Parcells said this week, he doesn't scramble in order to tuck the ball and run as much as he does simply to improve sight lines and passing lanes. If Rattay is allowed to roam around in the backfield before throwing, that will allow his receivers more time to get open. If the Dallas defense can force him to remain in the pocket and make quick throws or hand the ball off, the San Francisco offense will resemble the version that got shut down in Philadelphia more than the version that enjoyed some success against the Rams.

Win the Field Position Battle
San Francisco's offense is not what many would call "explosive"; their victory over St. Louis was sparked in part by special teams, which included a long touchdown return. Parcells was upset with the Cowboys' kickoff return coverage after his team's season-opening win over the Chargers. He talked about players (particularly backup RB Marion Barber) getting out of their coverage lanes, thereby allowing San Diego KR/RB Darren Sproles to find gaping running lanes on returns. In Week 2, the Cowboys showed significant improvement on kickoff coverage, keeping the Redskins from breaking any long returns. The Niners have some young talent at WR in Arnaz Battle, Brandon Lloyd and Rashaun Woods (as well as 12th-year veteran Johnnie Morton), but Rattay is not particularly fast, nor does he have the strongest arm.

If Dallas can force the San Francisco offense to play on a longer field -- and subsequently give QB Drew Bledsoe and the Dallas offense a short field -- the Cowboys should be able to build an early lead … and rest assured, the Dallas secondary will not allow receivers to get behind them late in the game.

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