When the San Francisco 49ers square off against the Dallas Cowboys in the season opener, it will be a game in which a rivalry will be renewed. During the early 90’s it was the Cowboys who dominated the series but times have changed and this is a new era. So with the 49ers trying to end their quest for six while the Cowboys hope to halt their four-year playoff drought, what can the Forever Faithful expect on Sunday? While on paper it looks like this game will be an easy win for the Niners, I believe it will be closer than many expect.
An opening game on the road should be nothing to overlook. And while the 49ers have a reputation as being road warriors under head coach Jim Harbaugh, the game itself should be a good one.
Starting with the 49ers offensive line, it will be imperative that they control the line of scrimmage while imposing their will. A strength of the team as the 49ers use a power running scheme, it will be up to the goons up front to do their job. A left-side of the o-line that features arguably the best one-two punch in the NFL at the tackle-guard position, look for T Joe Staley and LG Mike Iupati to hit that lunch pale hard.
Two All-Pros who are absolute maulers in the run game, I think that both RB Frank Gore and rookie second-round pick (No. 57) RB Carlos Hyde will greatly benefit from that strength and run wild on that side. Both Gore and Hyde are patient runners which in turn allows plays to develop and that’s where their success will come from. Gore had a modest outing in their last meeting as he rushed 20 times for 47 yards and one touchdown. Look for that to change this time around as the 49ers incorporate Hyde into the mix while easily topping 120 yards rushing.
Not to mention, underrated FB Bruce Miller can hit that second-level hard while swallowing middle linebackers at the point of attack, Gore and/or Hyde should have some big plays in Week 1, as they dish/dash their way to a big day.
While the running game gets off to a fast start while killing the time of possesion, look for 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick to then get into his rhythm. In Kap’s first two starts to begin an NFL season he had great games, as he combined to complete 43 of 62 passes for 655 yards and five touchdowns. If you remember, Kap’s first career NFL start came against DC Rod Marinelli’s defense in 2012, in which he completed 16 of 23 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns, look for a similar output as I predict him to complete around 16 of 24 passes for 215 yards and two touchdowns.
And if you’re wondering who will benefit from Kap’s success, I think that guy will be six-year veteran WR Michael Crabtree. A player that is playing in his hometown state, Crabtree should have a big game like the one he had against the Houston Texans in his rookie debut back in 2009. And despite Crabtree not having a stellar stat line as he caught just five receptions for 56 yards, just flashback to his highlight reel in which he made great catch after great catch. Look for that to continue on Sunday as I believe Crabtree will have a big game as he hauls in around six catches for 80 yards and one touchdown.
While the 49ers offense does their part, look for the defense to try and do theirs, as they try to suffocate the run, early and often. Led by Cowboys RB DeMarcus Murray, he is no slouch by any stretch of the imagination as he is very shifty and quick in space. Combine that with a decent offensive line that includes three first-round picks in C Travis Frederick, T Tyron Smith, and this year’s first-round pick G Zack Martin and you have a problem on your hands. However, luckily for the 49ers they still have one of the best front sevens in the NFL.
Led by six-time All-Pro ILB Patrick Willis, he’s undoubtedly eager to prove he’s still the best linebacker in the game. A man among boys, it will be Willis who will have more opportunities to make plays on the ball as he moves to the “Mike” linebacker role. A position that he played during his early years under former DC Mike Manusky, where he lined up over the tight-end, Willis should hold his own in 2014.
Under Manusky, Willis flourished as the quarterback of the defense as he stormed out of the gates by racking up 595 tackles, 15.0 sacks, eight forced fumbles, four interceptions, and 28 pass break-ups in his first four NFL seasons. A player with the athleticism, speed, and strength to flow to the ball naturally while “spying” on the quarterback in run support, Willis was the epitome of an inside “Mike” linebacker. Now, as he enters his eighth season with the team, Willis will go back to his roots and relish that role once again in 2014 and should fare well against the Cowboys as I predict him to have around 10 tackles and one forced fumble.
With Willis moving to the strong side that leaves ILB Michael Wilhoite to play the “Jack” role or what I like to call the “plugger” role. A position that requires the inside linebacker to take on and occupy blockers to free up Willis, Wilhoite should do a nice job in that department. A heady player as Wilhoite played safety in college, he shouldn’t have too many mental errors as he filled in admirably well for Willis last season. And with 49ers’ OLB Ahmad Brooks and OLB Corey Lemonier setting the edge by closing the C-gaps, that leaves Cowboys RB DeMarcus Murray no choice but to be flushed back inside where the heart of the defense awaits.
The key to stopping the oft-injured but deceptively fast Murray is to set the edge on the outside. Murray does most of his damage in space, so if the 49ers can maintain their gap integrity while having Willis or Wilhoite spy on him coming out of the flat, that should bode well for the 49ers defense. Last year, Murray averaged 5.2 yards per carry while also rushing for 1,121 yards so the 49ers will need to account for him on every snap. And that’s where the defensive line comes into play.
[Related: Why 49ers DE Tank Carradine will continue to shine under 3-4 scheme]
The linebackers may be the ones that fill up the stat sheets but it’s the play of the 49ers defensive line that will make it all possible. From DE Justin Smith to backup DE Tank Carradine, the 49ers have more depth this season than in year’s past. A good sign considering NT Glenn Dorsey is out indefinitely due to a torn bicep, the 49ers goons up front should do an admirable job as last year’s day one starter NT Ian Williams fills in. Whether playing the zero, three, or five technique, the 49ers D-line should plug the A and B gaps easily as they push the pocket. And while Carradine and DL Quinton Dial have zero experience in regular-season play, do not be shocked if they make plenty of plays at or near the line of scrimmage as I predict the two to combine for around three tackles and one sack.
With the 49ers making the Cowboys one-dimensional, look for them to then try and stop the pass. This is clearly the Cowboys strength and with two Pro Bowl targets to throw to in WR Dez Bryant and TE Jason Witten the verdict is out on whether they can get the job done. To be honest, I think both players will have big days with Bryant being the fantasy stud, as I said, “With the 49ers secondary having their hands full on Week 1, look for Bryant to have a big game as I predict him to have a stat line around 8 catches for 100 receiving yards and one touchdown. So if Bryant is on your fantasy team, be happy fantasy owners as Bryant will be your Week 1 fantasy stud!”
But why will Bryant have a big game you ask? Read my in-depth article here.
And who can forget about Witten. The No. 1 security blanket for Cowboys QB Tony Romo look for Witten to benefit as he should get open between the 20’s. Whether running a dig-route in the slot or out route, Witten is as savvy as they come and 49ers DC Vic Fangio knows it. To counter this problem look for the 49ers to send OLB Ahmad Brooks and OLB Corey Lemonier as those two will be counted on as the pass-rush specialists.
Last year, Brooks filled in admirably as the primary source of pass-rush in Smith’s five-game absence, as he recorded 17 tackles and 2.5 sacks. And while those numbers don’t stand out, these numbers do, as Brooks racked up an additional three quarterback hits and eight quarterback hurries according to Pro Football Focus. And that’s exactly what Brooks will bring on opening day as his pass-rush will be invaluable to the 49ers winning the game.
From blitzing the c-gaps to stunting inside on the b-gaps, Brooks will need to set the edge in more ways than one. A very underrated player as Brooks can also clog up passing lanes, look for Brooks to create havoc in the backfield as he forces QB Tony Romo to make quick decisions, as I predict him to have around six tackles, 1.5 sacks, and one forced fumble.
With the 49ers playing a tough game on the road, I have them winning a close one as they beat the Cowboys 24-20.
With the total points set at 51, I have to slightly take the under. This game will in all likelihood be a close one where the 49ers put a stranglehold on the time of possession while protecting an early lead.
With the 49ers favored by 5 points, this is a tough call. Honestly, I would stay away and would rather bet the over/under but if I had to absolutely choose, I would take the 49ers and five points as the Cowboys defense is downright horrible.
As you know we select three players each game who we think will score touchdowns (quarterbacks omitted). So without further ado, our three players for this week’s game are:
WR Dez Bryant
WR Michael Crabtree
RB Frank Gore
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