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Cowboys - 49ers Preview

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This was a game that used to make the league come to a stop. Today is finds two down on their luck franchises trying to regain respect. The Cowboys appear farther ahead in their quest, though the last minutes meltdown against the Redskins last week must smart. The 49ers have seemingly been in a rebuilding mode forever, or at least since Terrell Owens caught a last second pass to beat the Packers in a playoff game -- way back in 1998.

The salary cap was the undoing of both franchises, who entered the cap era as the league's class. Both overspent heavily in an attempt to outlast the other, and found their finanacial flexibility gone by the end of the decade. Dallas has recovered from its drunken spending days. The Niners are still trying to figure out what went wrong. Though the luster is gone, both teams will still enjoy beating the other.

When the 49ers Have the Ball

They're the 31st rated offense in the league. They have not been able to run. They can only sporadically pass. Their pass protection has been so-so and their quarterback situation is unsettled. They lost their only recent offensive Pro Bowler this week when TE Eric Johnson was placed on injured reserve. Yet the 49ers are 1-1.

That's because they have been able to maximize their few moments of inspiration. They've been awful for seven of the eight quarters they've played this year, but for fifteen minutes late in the second quarter and early in the third quarter of their season opener, the 49ers found a rhythm. In that span, they ran their three and only TD drives of the year. A 75 yard punt return for a score in that same span gave the 49ers a 28 -9 lead that held up for a 28-25 win.

Dallas knows first hand how an unexpected offensive explosion can ruin your day. The defense had Washington bottled up for 56 minutes last week and seemingly had the Redskins headed to a touchdown-free opening two games. But Washington found its own rhythm and, like the 49ers the week before, left their opponents feeling robbed.

The key for the Dallas defense will be early pressure. The 49ers have been slow starters in both games. Last week, the Niners produced just one first half first down. Step one will be maintaining the lid the league has put on the San Francisco running game. The Niners have been rotating RBs Kevin Barlow and Frank Gore, but neither has been able to produce consistent yardage. The new Cowboys 3-4 has been effective at slowing marquee runners LaDainian Tomlimson and Clinton Portis and should be able to keep the Niners backs under control.

The second task will be supplying pressure on Niners QB Tim Rattay. The blitz packages that stuttered against the Chargers on opening day were more successful early against Washington, producing six sacks. The Niners have been respectable at protecting Rattay, allowing three against the Rams and two in Philadelphia. However, the raw stats are misleading. One reason the QBs have been sacked so little is that they've been on the field so little; the 49ers average just over 21 minutes per game in time of possession. They are the early masters of the three and out and if Dallas can pressure Rattay into incompletions, sacks may be luxuries.

The third task for the defense is preventing one of the young WR duo of Brandon Lloyd and Arzaz Battle from breaking out. Lloyd has been the closest thing the Niners have to a go-to guy. Battle has been used as a multiple threat -- against the Rams, the former Notre Dame QB threw three passes. The novelty apparently wore off against the Eagles, as he was limited to catching the ball. Look for more press coverage from the Dallas base package of corners Anthony Henry and Terence Newman. This may be the week a team begins to zero in on Newman and move their focus away from Henry, who has been stellar so far.

Don't be surprised if the 49ers try some plays from the Redskins' playbook and try to isolate receivers against Cowboys nickel LC Aaron Glenn. Glenn plays outside when Dallas is in nickel and he was on the opposite end of both long TD bombs to Santana Moss last week.

When Dallas Has the Ball

The slow, tedious pace of last week has many fans clamoring for the Cowboys to open up the playbook. I'm not convinced they will. The key to beating the 49ers thus far has been ball control. The Rams ran 89 plays to the Niners' 41, had a 405 to 217 edge in yards and a whopping 39:23 to 20:37 edge in time of possession. The Eagles were even better, outgaining the Niners 583 to 142 and keeping the ball for 37:57 to San Fran's 22:03.

Ball control has been the aim of Dallas this year. So expect more of the same -- look for Julius Jones to get the ball a lot on first and second downs, as the Cowboys try to improve on their decent, but hardly-great running numbers from the first two weeks. Jones has some runs of more than 10 yards, but none of more than 20 so far. He may get some against the Niners' new 3-4 scheme.

Patience will also be the buzzword when Dallas throws the ball. With a new scheme being installed, and with a rickety secondary -- San Francisco had one of the worst secondaries in the league last year, in part because of injuries -- the Niners are playing many bend-but-don't -break coverages. The Rams were able to get a lot of seven, eight, nine, fourteen, fifteen and sixteen yard receptions. What the Niners were able to prevent in week one was the deep pass. Look for the Niners to play lots of soft zones on the Dallas side of the 50 and on their side of midfield.

The change in philosophy comes when a team gets inside the San Francisco red zone. A team that concedes yards between the 20s gets aggressive when backed up. This is how the Niners were able to beat the Rams, even through they were outgained and outpossessed so badly. The Niners not only got seven sacks, but they got them at opportune times. Three times the Rams got inside the San Francisco fifteen yard line, only to see Marc Bulger sacked in those situations. The Rams had to settle for four field goals, three of them very short, and this was the margin. The 49ers were even able to beat back an Eagles drive inside their own five last week, sacking Donovan McNabb and forcing a turnover.

Patient has been the hallmark of Dallas' passing game thus far. Drew Bledsoe is the top rated NFC QB thus far because of his high completion percentage and no interceptions. He's been very effective in the intermediate routes, using Keyshawn Johnson, Terry Glenn and Patrick Crayton to great effect. TE Jason Witten on the other hand has been nearly invisible, catching only two passes. This is the result of regular double coverage. Look for Dallas to stick with this philosophy of working the middle of the field. It's something Bledsoe does well, and it's something the Niners are poor at stopping.

If Dallas does take some deep shots, look for a replay of what the Eagles did to the Niners last week. Philadelphia was able to spread the field and get Terrell Owens one on one against Niners corners. He caught a 68 yard TD on Philly's first series and another long pass late in the half. Dallas caught the Redskins Sean Taylor with a flea flicker in the third quarter that resulted in a 70 yard TD to Terry Glenn. Dallas might not resort to trickery again, but their tendencies will remain the same; look for some deep passes early in drive when Dallas is outside its own 30. Look for Dallas to be equal opportunity attackers. LC Mike Rumph has been a disappointment and RC Ahmed Plummer gets as much action as any NFL CB.

A key to the passing attack will be keeping Bledsoe clean. One bright light from the Washington game was the pass protection. The offensive line did not allow a sack and did not permit Bledsoe to be hit often. In his midweek press conference, Bill Parcells remarked that the line, Andre Gurode aside, was flawless in its calls and adjustments. The 49ers they will have to account for are RE Bryant Young and OLB Julian Peterson. Young is a wily old vet who had four sacks against the Rams. Peterson is an athletic OLB who was probably the most versatile defensive player in the league before he injured an Achilles tendon two years ago. In a game at Texas Stadium a few years ago, Peterson sometimes lined up over receivers in the slot and covered them effectively. The Niners will move him around to try to find favorable rush matchups. If they find some, he will be able to mouth off as he has to the press all week.

Special teams
Dallas improved its coverage play last week, reducing one major concern from week one. The addition of Keith Davis to the cover teams had an immediate effect. Another positive change was the inclusion of Tyson Thompson, who showed great explosiveness on kick returns.

Prediction: There are not many games on the Cowboys schedule that look like solid wins. This is one of them. The Cowboys are a better team right now than the 49ers, who are only two games into the Mike Nolan regime. Don't look for anything crazy. Expect the Cowboys to keep to the philosophies they've established so far, but to try and execute them better. Dallas 24, San Francisco 13