If someone told you that the Cowboys would be without Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, and Tyron Smith, this would probably be your reaction...
But that’s exactly what the Cowboys could be facing on Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers. But nobody is panicking. The play-making ability of rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott have fans pumped to see what’s coming next. The Cowboys would love to leave the Bay area with a 3-1 record with their best pass rusher returning the following week. Dallas will need to take care of business and here are five things to keep an eye on Sunday.
Put Carlos On His Hyde
When evaluating Ezekiel Elliott, it’s easy to just say he checks off all the boxes as the rookie running back does so many great things. But there is another former Ohio State running back that possesses a lot of strong traits when carrying the ball. 49ers third-year back Carlos Hyde has a great combination of speed and power. He is a patient runner and has excellent cutting ability.
This is going to be tough challenge for the Cowboys defense. Dallas ranks 10th against the run, allowing 91 yards a game. That’s respectable, but they are very inconsistent. Sometimes they are stopping runners in the backfield, other times they chasing them down for big gains. The Cowboys need to commit extra resources to keep Hyde under control. If they keep the 49ers running back in check, San Francisco will have a real difficult time winning this game.
Key Matchup: Cowboys LBs vs. Carlos Hyde. The 49ers running back will find some holes and will try to give the Cowboys linebackers a little wiggle-wiggle. Containing him will be huge or small gains will turn into huge ones. It would be nice if Justin Durant and Anthony Hitchens put together good games on Sunday.
Gabbert Is Dying To Mess Up
The 49ers offense looks very similar to the Cowboys offense of 2015. They have a good running attack, but no quarterback to make plays. Gabbert has good mobility, but cannot do much with his arm. San Francisco is near the bottom with only 175 yards passing per game. Gabbert ranks 32nd with 5.5 yards per passing attempt. He just doesn’t pose a threat to make any big plays.
The Cowboys should load the box to stop Hyde and force the 49ers quarterback to beat them. Every play Gabbert has to make is just another chance for something good to happen for the Cowboys. And don’t fall for his play-action theatrics, no matter how convincing they are.
Don’t Be Surprised If: Colin Kaepernick makes an appearance. Gabbert just doesn’t have the skills to help his team win games. The 49ers are going to have to make this change eventually.
Keep Your Head In The Game
While the 49ers don’t have the talent to match up with the Cowboys, their chances to win this game will stem from winning the mental game. San Francisco will need to limit their mistakes and capitalize on the mistakes of others. And that’s not an unreasonable thing to ask as this 49ers team has shown great discipline this year. For starters, they don’t commit very many penalties. In fact, they have the fewest in the league with only 12 penalties. They are also very good at taking the ball away. San Francisco has eight takeaways so far this season (third in the league).
But the Cowboys show some discipline as well. They have the fifth fewest penalties this season.
While the Cowboys haven’t taken the ball away that much this season, they’ve done a great job protecting it. They have a +2 turnover differential (compared to San Francisco’s +3) which ranks them 10th in the league.
If the Cowboys can protect the ball, they are going to make it very tough for the 49ers to pull off the upset.
Flag On The Play: If Doug Free and Chaz Green are manning the tackle positions, this could be a problem for the Cowboys. There could be a lot of yellow laundry on the field.
Look For Something Special
For all their success on offense, the Cowboys haven’t had a lot of big plays. They have a big play (10+ rushing, 25+ receiving) on only 6.37 % of their plays, ranking them 23rd in the league.
But this game just has a feel that something big is going to happen. Could Lucky Whitehead return a punt for a touchdown? Or will Sean Lee jump in front of a Gabbert pass and take it to the house? Maybe Brice Butler will be an unsuspecting hero when he makes a big play to cinch the game.
Fun Flashback: The last time the Cowboys traveled to San Francisco, Dez Bryant didn’t play. Jesse Holley was the unsuspecting hero when he made a 77-yard catch to help them win in overtime in 2011.
Chip Away At The Scoreboard
The Cowboys have scored on 15 of their 29 drives this season (51.7%), second best in the league. And they’d be first if it wasn’t for the Saints defense rolling out the red carpet for the Falcons last Monday Night. Dak Prescott has been very efficient this season, converting third downs and putting the team in position to score. The 49ers defense is solid, but with how the Cowboys have been moving the ball, Dak and company will spend plenty of time in 49ers territory.
San Francisco’s defense features a nice front line followed by a strong linebacker group. The Cowboys rookie offensive stars will be looking to keep the momentum going, but it could be a strenuous task this week. Ezekiel Elliott will have Navorro Bowman chasing him around and Prescott will have to be mindful of where Eric Reid is at. San Francisco will challenge Prescott with a lot of different looks, hoping the clock will strike twelve o’clock for this Cinderella draft pick.
Dallas doesn’t have to light up the scoreboard and look like the offensive juggernaut they’ve been these the last couple games. They just need to come away with points whenever they get in scoring position. Don’t squander opportunities with turnovers or penalties that take them out of field goal range.
Prediction: Cole Beasley will have a big game as he will be Prescott’s security blanket. Look for a lot of short passes to the Cowboys slot receiver. Four Dan Bailey FGs help pads the score. Dallas wins 26-17.