Cowboys @ 49ers: Keys To The Game

The Dallas Cowboys must find a way to contain Vernon Davis.

Moving on from one of the more frustrating games I can remember as a Dallas Cowboys fan, we set our eyes on a trip to San Francisco as the Cowboys take on a team that is looking to finally climb out of the NFC West cellar. After years being mired in mediocrity and after some disappointing seasons under departed head coach Mike Singletary, the 49ers are looking for a new beginning under exciting new coach Jim Harbaugh.

Coming off a big win over division rival Seattle, it's going to be interesting to see how the 49ers approach this game against Dallas. Watching tape of the game I saw an offense that played conservatively in support of a surprisingly aggressive defense and an extremely potent special teams unit. The 49ers played far from the perfect game and allowed Tarvaris Jackson and the Seahawks to attempt a comeback, yet two big returns by Ted Ginn, Jr. negated any sort of push Seattle might have had.

As we prepare for Sunday, both teams carry different yet somewhat similar expectations into the game. The Cowboys and 49ers are feeling optimistic, with the Cowboys once again facing what some would say is a "must win" game just a few weeks into the season. With that in mind, let's take a look at what it's going to take for the Cowboys to overcome a very confident football team come Sunday.

Establish dominance on the line of scrimmage.

The 49ers are running a 3-4 defense, but one that is used much different than what we're used to seeing in Dallas. The interior linemen in this defense are all extremely athletic and strong and were able to create all sorts of problems for a young and undersized offensive line against Seattle -- sound familiar?

Ray McDonald was the most dominant player on defense for the 49ers last Sunday, making plays against the run and the pass by beating up on the interior linemen of the Seahawks. San Francisco will look to create a similar mismatch against the Cowboys, who struggled last week with problems containing the middle of the offense as well. The 49ers don't blitz nearly as often as the Jets, instead relying on the natural pass rush of their linebackers and linemen to create problems for the offense.

Last week, the Cowboys found success airing the ball out and negating what was a very good front seven of the Jets. Even against an elite secondary like the Jets, the Cowboys were able to exploit mismatches and move the ball downfield throughout the game, something that will be needed against the 49ers. Felix Jones didn't have much space to work with last Sunday and could be facing similar issues this week.

The Cowboys will attempt to counter this interior weakness with toss plays and screens, yet one reason the Cowboys failed to hold on to the lead last week was an inability to run the ball when it was needed the most.

The Cowboys are taking on a very strong interior line, one reason there's speculation that Derrick Dockery could get the nod at left guard over Bill Nagy. While the Cowboys faced a very strong line against the Jets and held up well, the 49ers present a different sort of challenge with their speed and quickness off the snap. It's going to be important for the offensive line to establish themselves early and not allow the 49ers to gain more confidence and momentum against the rush and on passing plays.

Find some way to contain Ted Ginn, Jr.

Last week, the Seattle Seahawks were well on their way to comeback victory on the road when two returns for touchdowns changed the tide of the game completely. After a late touchdown by the Seahawks, Ginn took a kickoff back 102 yards for a score to extend the lead. He then put the game away for good with a 55-yard punt return that made the score 33 - 17 with just three minutes remaining in the game. 

Prior to his first return, the Seahawks had just pulled within 17-19 and were grabbing at any momentum that might have existed in this game. The 49ers offense, meanwhile, was sputtering and were incapable of moving the ball downfield.

The Cowboys have had all sorts of special teams troubles the past few years, even with coach DeCamillis running the unit. Last week, a blocked punt tied the game for the Jets against the Cowboys, setting up the epic loss in the game's final minute. For the Cowboys, not allowing the 49ers any sort of chance at easy scores is paramount to winning this game.

The problem is that it's simply not an issue of bottling up Ginn. He's not the type of return man who will pull a bunch of dekes from his hat; he relies on pure speed and he uses it exceptionally well. Both returns looked to be well maintained at first, yet Ginn was able to take advantage of small seams in the coverage and race for the end zone.

On his kickoff return, the Seahawks collapsed inside and lost containment on the outside part of the field, allowing Ginn plenty of space with which to run. On the punt return he exploited some good blocks and a wall built by his blockers to escape untouched. 

For this game, the Cowboys will have to find some way to maintain field position while kicking away from Ginn. McBriar is going to be instrumental in this endeavor and David Beuhler will have to be perfect on his kickoffs, not allowing anything returnable. The key here: don't kick it to Ginn.

Be mindful of the tight ends.

Finally, the one aspect of this game that truly has me worried. 

The 49ers are not yet a team that will threaten to launch the ball downfield, relying instead on a pounding rush attack and quick throws across the middle that exploit potential match up problems. For the 49ers, Alex Smith has tight end Vernon Davis as a security blanket, one of the most dangerous receiving threats in the NFL among tight ends.

With a banged up secondary and missing two of the team's top cornerbacks, the Cowboys have been forced to spread out the defensive backs more than anticipated, leaving the linebackers to cover tight ends off the line and out of the slot at times. Davis is the perfect weapon to take advantage of these mismatches and should provide a very capable security blanket for Smith as he'll likely struggle with the pass rush of the defense.

As we've seen too many times lately, the Cowboys absolutely cannot allow tight ends to run free in the defensive secondary -- which negates any sort of pass rush the Cowboys can muster. Rob Ryan will likely approach Davis as the top receiving threat for the 49ers and plan accordingly.

It's going to be interesting to see how the Cowboys cover a tight end like Davis and whether players like Sean Lee and Keith Brooking, who both struggled in this area against the Jets, are willing and able to do what it takes to take away perhaps the best weapon the 49ers have to offer.

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