When you have a bad taste in your mouth over a football game that the Cowboys lost, but could easily have won, there is only one way to truly get it cleansed: Go out and beat the next team. Our opportunity comes in San Francisco, a team Dallas has had some memorable but not always happy history with. (Don't say it. We can all see it in our heads. Don't say it.)
There are some similarities in the situations of the two teams. Both have new coaches, with Jim Harbaugh taking over the reins after the departure of Mike Singletary. This actually should give Jason Garrett a modest advantage, since he has half a season' experience more, and has been with the team for four years as a coach overall. Harbaugh was hired out of Stanford, and is making the transition from the college game to the pros, which does not seem to be the hurdle it once was.
Both teams also had disappointing years in 2010, ending with identical 6-10 records. San Francisco had hoped to build on an 8-8 season in 2009, but also like the Cowboys, got off to a horrible start, going 0-5 to open the year.
Unlike the Cowboys this year, the Niners had a very enjoyable first game, beating the Seattle Seahawks 33-17. I took a look at the game to see what I could see.
Results of the video review after the jump.
San Francisco plays a 3-4, but as you would expect it is more conventional than the Rob Ryan version. It is similar to Dallas' squad in that the strength is in the front seven. They were very effective against the run, holding the Seahawks to 64 yards/2.9 yards an attempt. When I reviewed the game, I took notes on all the plays, and I kept writing the same thing over and over: "Run stuffed." There was very little room for Marshawn Lynch and the other Seattle backs, particularly going between the tackles. The Niners swarmed to the ball. Pass pressure was also effective, with five sacks, three by linemen and two by a linebacker. One caveat to the effectiveness of the defense was that they were playing Seattle, which has a somewhat suspect offensive line and is quarterbacked by Tarvaris Jackson. Tony Romo quaterbacking should be much more of a problem for the Niners to handle, and I also think the Yuglies on the Dallas offensive line will be more effective than Seattle's line.
One thing I noticed was the distribution of tackles for SF. Here are the top eight tackers from the game (not counting ST tackles):
That is a very even distribution, and the best illustration I can come up with of the swarming nature of the defense.
To attack this defense, it looks like Dallas will want to stretch the field, both vertically and horizontally. They will need to get outside with runs and swing passes, and go over the top against the secondary, which did not look as strong as the front seven. Seattle was able to put together some decent drives against them in the second half, and the Seahawks really did not have much of a deep threat at all. They only completed one pass over 20 yards, and most were the 10 to 12 yard variety, or less.
I saw a couple of screen attempts broken up by linebackers, and Jackson was usually under pressure, resulting in sacks, bad throws, and a couple of scrambles for plus yards. It appears to me that the Dallas line can give Tony a little more protection than Jackson had, and Tony should be much better at getting the ball out quickly when he has to. I think Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Jason Witten are all better receivers than anyone Seatlle had on the field. John Phillips and Kevin Ogletree could both likely compete for starting jobs with the Seahawks.
The one long pass Seattle completed, for 55 yds, was because the wide receiver, Doug Baldwin, took a short pass and then split the defenders, running straight up the field for a touchdown. Any of the Dallas receivers have the ability to do this to the secondary and I would not be surprised to see a couplr of plays designed to try and exploit this. On the ground, Felix Jones needs to get outside and use his speed. Don't go up the middle early, although if Dallas gets them to back off a little, this may open up later in the game.
On offense, the 49ers have Alex Smith at quarterback and this limits them. It is still an open question whether he has the skills to be an effective NFL quarterback. The hope in San Francisco is that Jim Harbaugh can mold him into one, but that remains to be seen. He did not look hopeless during the Seattle game, but he was not impressive by any means. He completed only two passes over 20 yards, and almost everything was dink-and-dunk completions. I had a note that there were a lot of passes for very few, or even negative, yards. Smith did try to go deep a couple of times, but the attempts were not very credible.
The best receiver on the field for the game was TE Vernon Davis, who looked like the one consistent threat. He appeared to be who Smith looked to when he was trying to convert a third down. Braylon Edwards also looked good a couple of times, and Josh Morgan had a couple of nice catches, but overall the passing game was not intimidating. Michael Crabtree was a non-factor, and Frank Gore did little coming out of the backfield. The Seattle defense used the approach of pressuring Smith with the rush, and though he did not get sacked, he did have missed throws under duress. Looking at this game film, DeMarcus Ware should be licking his chops, and he's probably not alone. I don't think Alex Smith will cope well with Rob Ryan's planned chaos.
I mentioned how often I wrote down "run stuffed" when the Niners were on defense above. I may have written it more when they were on offense. The performance of the Seattle front seven was pretty much a mirror image, and yielded the same results, limiting Gore to 59 yards and a 2.7 yard per carry average. The only time he had any success was when they would go misdirection, loading up one way and then sending him back the other. There is a danger if the Cowboys front seven over-pursue and leave him some space to work with. Otherwise, the level of play they showed against the Jets should effectively bottle up the 49ers running game, as well as harass Alex Smith.
They were pretty dreadful in the Red Zone, settling four times for a field goal. (In a bizarre sequence, David Akers actually kicked one of the field goals four times. He had the first one taken off the board when he turned in a great soccer style flop and got a running into the kicker penalty. Then after the team still couldn't punch it in after a first and goal from the one, he kicked it and it was erased by a delay penalty. He kicked it again, and a false start negated it. Finally the fourth one stood.) Akers is a good reason to put the game away early. Don't give him a chance to win it on a field goal. He is too reliable.
Speaking of penalties, SF was flagged nine times for 102 yards. They were sloppy and mistake prone.
That leaves what? Oh, special teams.
I will admit, I think the offense for San Fran is pretty anemic and the defense can be exploited. As for the special teams, it is simple.
Do not kick to Ted Ginn. Period. At all. Under any circumstances. DON'T DO IT. San Francisco's offense had 209 yards total. Ted Ginn Jr. had 268 yards returning kicks. Before he got really cranked up, he had already had a good day and set up two of the field goals with his returns. (Another was wiped out by a holding call.) Then Seattle had their one really good offensive play, the 55-yard pass reception and run, to make the score 19-17 in the Niners' favor, with 3:56 left in the game. The kickoff went two yards deep in the end zone. Ginn went 102 yards the other way. There was one of those moments when the kicker and a coverage guy both had an angle on him along the sidelines, and it was like watching a Road Runner cartoon in real life. The only thing he didn't do was turn around and stick his tongue out at them as he blew past.
The SF defense was all fired up after that and had a great stand, including a sack. On 4th and 16, Seattle had to punt. Ginn fielded the punt at his own 45. See above. 55-yard return for a TD.
The Cowboys don't need to mess around with high kickoffs. Tell David Buehler to put the ball as far beyond the end zone as he can. Have Mat McBriar kick to the sideline, even if it gives up a few yards. And a touchback on a punt may be better than giving Ginn a shot at it. This guy is the most dangerous weapon the 49ers have, and he put the game away for them.
Do. Not. Kick. To. Ginn.
Otherwise, Dallas has a good shot at a win.