I’m a lifelong Cowboys fan, now live in the SF Bay Area and hold season tickets for Stanford football. While I could never, ever, ever remotely begin to root for the 49ers, I developed a lot of respect for Jim Harbaugh when he coached Stanford and would not be surprised to see him lead the Niners back to being a playoff contender—and quickly, too, given the weakness of the NFC West.
I watched the 49ers dismantle Seattle on Sunday (and, being no Pete Carroll fan, was delighted). The most striking thing about the 49ers’ performance was how incredibly similar Harbaugh’s management of the team was to his management of Stanford. This was especially true of the offense, where his top priority clearly is to protect Alex Smith and put him in position to be the best quarterback he can be in a system that fits Smith's skills. It’s the blueprint Harbaugh has used for three years with Andrew Luck, and a major reason why Luck has been able to take his superior raw talent to Heisman levels.
The 49ers' approach so far should be no surprise given that Harbaugh took every key member of his Stanford staff to the 49ers with him. Most, including D Coordinator Vic Fangio and O Coordinator Greg Roman, went to Stanford from the NFL at Harbaugh’s invitation. In fact, the last half of the Stanford 2010 season looked like a dress rehearsal for a return of Harbaugh & Co. en masse to the NFL. And that’s pretty much what happened within 48 hours of Stanford’s winning the Orange Bowl.
Having witnessed Harbaugh and this staff hone their philosophy running pro-style sets for years at Stanford, and having watched the Niners disembowel the Seahawks last weekend using largely the same tendencies and systems, I've come up with five keys that I think the Cowboys should watch and prepare for on Sunday.
Harbaugh will design the offense to keep Alex Smith playing within himself. Against the Seahawks, Smith went 15 for 20 for 124 yards. He had no passing touchdowns (1 rushing) and no interceptions. He used six different receivers and didn’t show much inclination to check off at the line. My sympathies if you had him on your fantasy team.
However, this was exactly the kind of safe, play-within-yourself game that Smith needed and Harbaugh was looking for. In San Francisco, Smith has been the dog lying beside the front door who’s had no attention except for a kick in the ribs by everyone going in and out. Harbaugh said throughout the offseason (to incredulous Niners fans) that he felt Smith could be the guy this year, and now he’s showing why. Smith kept them in the game, moved the ball, gained confidence and showed good judgment. He didn’t light it up, but he didn’t turn it over. He’s earning something he hasn’t had in San Francisco during his career, and getting it from Harbaugh: trust. I’m looking for the 49ers to play steady, ball-control football in the passing game for the second week in a row.
On the other hand, Seattle has a weak front seven and gave Smith very little pressure last week. If Ryan can get the same kind of pressure throughout the game on Smith as on Sanchez last week, Smith is absolutely vulnerable--far more vulnerable than Sanchez, in my view. In the pre-season, the Saints blitzed the bejeezus out of the Niners from the first snap, and Smith fell apart.
Harbaugh will “go heavy” throughout the game, even in passing situations. Harbaugh / Roman love the multiple tight end set and use it both to attack and to disguise. Adam Snyder (No 68), a backup C/G (6’6, 328) showed up as an eligible receiver five times against the Seahawks. On Snyder’s first appearance, Smith sent him in motion, and the entire Seahawks defense jumped offsides. Harbaugh will run heavy sets repeatedly and both throw and pass from them with many variations. It won’t always be Frank Gore and Kendell Hunter pounding it up the middle. This will be mano a mano for our guys, and it will be especially interesting to see what Ryan does with Lee and Ware in response.
Harbaugh will try to give Tyron Smith fits using Ray McDonald. Frequently at Stanford, Harbaugh / Fangio put a widebody on the outside and bull rushed from there with one or two additional blitzers. Ray McDonald (6’3, 290) moves from the interior DL to left DE to play this role. He has surprising quickness and foot speed to go with straight-ahead strength. Against Seattle, he was a major disruption. He led the team with six tackles and also had a drive-killing sack of Tavaris Jackson. Smith did well on his own against the Jets and got help from Felix Jones and others when he needed it. He may need it again this week against this scheme.
Harbaugh's special teams will be better. It’s probably a push at punter, with McBriar and Andy Lee being even. Lee averaged 60 yards a punt / 54 net against Seattle. But our old nemesis David Akers has moved over from Philadelphia and was tied for the top fantasy placekicker in the league last week. And Ted Ginn Jr. is lethal as a returner: he had 156 return yards and 2 touchdowns in 56 seconds against the Seahawks. I don’t see many assured answers for this except (1) hoping the notorious Candlestick winds gust at just the right time, (2) truly kicking off for touchbacks and kicking away from Ginn, and (3) blocking the @#$!* punt schemes correctly.
Harbaugh will try to do something tricky with Braylon Edwards. Braylon Edwards is not everyone’s cup of tea and dropped more than his share of passes in the pre-season. But he's also the kind of shifty, fast and experienced WR that Harbaugh likes to line up in unexpected ways and pop free for big gains after the catch. Harbaugh had an unsung WR at Stanford named Doug Baldwin who played this same kind of role. Baldwin won a spot this year as an undrafted free agent for Seattle and broke a 55-yard catch and run for a touchdown against San Francisco. That must have brought Harbaugh a brief smile. I don't believe Edwards has yet turned in the trust-building kind of performance that Alex Smith had last week, but don’t be surprised if Harbaugh and Roman experiment early with disguising him, moving him around and featuring him against our injury-depleted secondary. I'd like to see us stuffing Edwards at the line and being extra careful with him when he lines up in the slot.
Despite all of this, I’m looking for the ‘Boys to rebound against the Niners. Their O-line is suspect, Frank Gore is about as effective as Marion Barber these days, and they don’t appear to have an answer in the secondary for the Cowboys' newly tricked-out pass-catching core, especially if Tony Romo plays the way he did in the first half against the Jets. But, for me, as a long-time Harbaugh observer, these would be some of the keys to watch.
I believe Jason Garrett and Jim Harbaugh are the two most interesting and exciting new head coaches in the league. And, of course, I hope JG pounds him into the ground this week.