With the preseason practically in the books for the San Francisco 49ers, they can now turn their attention to the heated rival Dallas Cowboys. A rivalry that goes back to the early 80’s, it was the Cowboys who often prevailed victorious when the two teams squared off. However, this is a different era and with the 49ers having a distinct advantage on the defensive side of the ball they should have no problems making the Cowboys one-dimensional.
A Cowboys offense that had the No. 24 ranked rushing attack last season, they will surely have their hands full opening week. An offensive line that has struggled to establish a rushing presence, GM Jerry Jones took note as he drafted Notre Dame product G/T Zack Martin with this year’s first-round pick (No. 16). If you remember, Jones made a bold move in last year’s draft by trading away his first-round pick (No. 18) to the 49ers, in exchange for the (No. 31) pick while then drafting C Travis Frederick in the process.
A head-scratcher considering Frederick was a projected third-round pick, Frederick turned out to be a nice addition as he became a solid starter his rookie season. And with former 2011 first-round pick (No. 9) T Tyron Smith being named a second-team All-Pro last season, that gives the Cowboys three first-round offensive lineman to work with. So why would the 49ers have success? Because they still have one of the stingiest defenses in the NFL.
The Cowboys are seemingly playing musical chairs year in-and-year-out with their play-callers. First it was head coach Jason Garrett then last year it was Bill Callahan and now it’s Scott Linehan. There’s no continuity and thus the offense will be at a clear disadvantage, as they face the 49ers front seven. A vaunting front seven that will be without two All-Pros in ILB NaVorro Bowman and OLB Aldon Smith, they should nonetheless still be able to suffocate the run.
One player that is undoubtedly eager to prove he’s still the best linebacker in the game is six-time All-Pro ILB Patrick Willis. 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 TE Jason Witten.
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 he is no slouch by any stretch of the imagination and the 49ers will need to account for him on every snap. That’s where the defensive line comes into play.
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 getting ready for Week one, they will need to do what they do best and that’s pound the rock and stuff the run. And I believe both of those things will happen if and only if, the offense can do it’s part and extend some drives to keep the defense fresh.