Pundits and analysts have completed their projections for the opening week of the NFL season and most do not believe the Dallas Cowboys will be able to overcome their opponent. The San Francisco 49ers have made it to the playoffs each of the past three seasons, including a Super Bowl appearance. It's easy to see why so many would consider a Cowboys victory an upset. However, on any given Sunday...
Each week, coaches around the NFL prepare for their upcoming opponents by creating a game plan that will help their team achieve victory. These coaches meetings must be some of the most interesting "think tanks" as the staffs search for opponents' weaknesses and tendencies to find ways to take advantage of them. While players executing plays on the field is vital, putting them in the best situation to succeed is paramount. Each week, NFL coaches prepare for an intricate game of gladiatorial chess, and it's my hope to present some of the possible discussions and game-plan considerations that occurred heading into the matchup versus the 49ers.
Obviously, a prime objective every week is to start the game on a high note by taking an early lead. But this becomes even more vital when your opponent presents one of the strongest and most intricate rushing attacks in the league. If the Cowboys hope to disrupt the game plan of the 49ers, they will have to take an early lead and sustain and increase it during the first half. It is always beneficial to create enough of a lead to make your opponent one dimensional, but it becomes even more important when your opponent's greatest strength is their ability to run the ball, and their greatest weakness is their (in)ability to win games through the air.
49ers QB Colin Kaepernick is a talented young quarterback. However, his athletic ability far outweighs his talent as a pocket passer. In 2013, Kaepernick had ten games in which he threw for fewer than 200 yards! However, due to the strength of the 49ers ground game and defense, not to mention Colin's ability to escape the pocket and run the ball, the 49ers lost only four of those ten games. Not surprisingly, his accuracy in those four losses was at or below 55%. In fact, Kaepernick had six games with this subpar completion percentage. The Cowboys best chance for success will be to take an early lead and force the 49ers to depend on Kaepernick to throw the ball while trying to play catch up.
The good news is that in 2013 only one team managed to score more often and more points than the Cowboys on their opening drives. That's right, the Cowboys ranked second in the league in opening drives resulting in points (9) as well as points scored on their opening drives (47). The offense has shown the ability to take early leads, but the onus will be on the defense to get some early stops to help that lead grow enough to make the 49ers one dimensional. But the bad news is that the 49ers were tied as the third best team in the league in scoring on their opening drives (8), though usually ending in field goals for a total of 36 points last season.
Don't Take the Bait
A lot has been made of the 49ers recent struggles on their offensive line and defensive front-seven. Their defense will be without some very talented players in Aldon Smith, Navaro Bowman, and Glen Dorsey. On offense, the 49ers have a shuffling O-line dealing with some injuries and a player returning from preseason hold-out. However, the Cowboys would be smart to avoid taking the bait and game-planning too heavily based on these current issues.
The 49ers front-seven may be depleted, but they still have very talented players in Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, and Patrick Willis. Just because the 49ers are missing their starting nose tackle and half of their great inside linebacker duo, the Cowboys should still plan to attack the edges of the defense, not the middle. Smith and McDonald are very strong at the point of attack and Willis is one of the best at his position. The Cowboys zone-blocking schemes are based on taking advantage of strong, less mobile defensive-lines by using stretch runs and pulling guards. Just because the 49ers are missing some key pieces in the middle of the defense does not mean the Cowboys should suddenly try to depend heavily on power runs up the gut. I expect them to attack the edges of the defense by running off-tackle, forcing those big 3-4 linemen to try to work laterally and forcing Willis to chase sideline to sideline while trying to avoid guards getting to the second level.
Rod Marinelli will also have to temper his desire to take the bait. With the shuffling going on along the 49ers O-line, his first instinct may be to rely very heavily on stunts to confuse the linemen that haven't worked together well this preseason. However, he must remember that the Cowboys starting defensive-linemen haven't gotten much work together this preseason either. Against a run-heavy offense, one of the worst things you can do is call stunts along the D-line that fail, leaving huge gaps in the running game. With the Cowboys linebacker group getting their first taste of a new alignment, Marinelli should play it smart and not depend on them too much to cover up any mistakes made by the D-line in their stunt work. Yes, in obvious passing situations, attack the 49ers shuffled O-line with stunts. But be careful in getting caught out of position against a team that loves running the ball, and that does it well.
Feed the Beast
In recent years, the 49ers defense has been known for their ability to stop the run, routinely ranking in the top five or ten in the league in allowed rushing average. But last season, they also greatly improved their passing defense, ranking (tied) fifth in lowest passing average allowed and seventh in passing yards allowed. However, they struggled getting to the quarterback, amassing only four more sacks in '13 than the Cowboys. With the continued loss of Aldon Smith, and now Glen Dorsey at nose tackle, the 49ers may again have difficulty creating pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Also, with the unexceptional talent in their secondary, the 49ers pass defense relied on great tackling, impressive safety play, and a swarming defense for this improvement. The best way to take advantage of this kind of defense...feed the beast.
Dez Bryant is a matchup nightmare for most defenses, especially ones without a Pro Bowl corner. The Cowboys would be wise to feed Dez the ball early and often. Not only because they should try to build an early lead, but because it will help break down the 49ers defense. Because the 49ers pass-defense is based on a great team effort and sound fundamentals, getting them to concentrate and worry about Dez will throw a cog into the machine. The Cowboys should not just utilize Dez to take the top off the defense, they should make him a nightmare in short and intermediate passes as well. This will have the 49ers defense start worrying more and more about Dez's ability to break tackles and turn short slants into big gains. As the entire defense, especially the safeties, starts worrying more and more about Dez, there is a greater likelihood that their frustration and worry will have them lose focus.
That is when the Cowboys will be able to start taking advantage with other players. Cole Beasley on a slot corner, or rookie Jimmy Ward, will suddenly be a one-on-one matchup with a chance for a big gain because the safeties have shifted to prevent Dez from tearing them apart. Terrance Williams will get more chances for his big plays on go routes as the safeties double and key on Dez. Suddenly, Patrick Willis is concentrating more on Dez Bryant crossing the middle and loses focus, allowing Jason Witten to take advantage with an option route. As the safeties and defense shifts to protect against Dez, suddenly a pass in the flat to Demarco Murray or Lance Dunbar is one defender away from a huge gain. By feeding the beast known as Dez Bryant, the Cowboys will have a better chance of making big plays with other players.
Be Smart on Third Downs
In the NFL season opener on Thursday night, the Green Bay Packers finally managed to get back in the game early in the fourth quarter. Down thirteen points, they only had to give their offense some more chances with ten minutes left in the game by stopping the Seattle Seahawks offense. The Packers defense had put themselves in a great position for a three-and-out, but then disaster struck. A defensive holding call against a tight end turned an incomplete pass to a wide receiver into a first-down for the Seahawks. It was the play that turned the game. The Packers defense was then unable to stop the drive and things got out of hand. But if the linebacker had simply been smarter on third down, knowing a short crossing route to a tight end would not be a huge threat and that an instant first down on a holding call would be disaster, the Packers might have had a chance. Instead, the game turned ugly.
As discussed earlier, the 49ers passing attack is not a huge threat. The Cowboys cannot allow them free first downs. The league is emphasizing defensive holding penalties, and the Cowboys need to be smart and force the 49ers to beat them through the air on third downs instead of giving them first downs on penalties. This will be vital to make the game plan work. The idea is to get a lead and force Kaepernick to beat them through the air. This will be made monumentally easier for the 49ers if the Cowboys defense commits dumb penalties on important downs. They had an issue with this in their final preseason game allowing far too many first downs due to penalties. This message should have been emphasized this past week. Make the 49ers beat us; don't help them by making mental mistakes.
The Cowboys are actually in a great situation for a huge upset this Sunday. The 49ers defense is missing key payers, their offensive line is in slight disarray, and their primary wide receiver could be hobbled. If I were helping create the game plan for this week I would emphasize the need to take an early lead and build on it while feeding the ball to Dez. Concentrate on staying true to the running game philosophy and not giving the 49ers opportunities with failed stunts against runs or dumb penalties on third downs. It will require far more than this to win the season opener, but in my opinion, these are some primary factors in the guide to victory this Sunday.