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Cowboys @ 49ers: Previewing San Francisco’s Defensive and Special Teams Personnel

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A look at the strengths and weaknesses of the Cowboys Week 4 opponent on defense and special teams.

Los Angeles Rams v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The 49ers 3-4 defense is a talented, if inconsistent unit at all three levels, let’s take a look.

Defensive Line

In back to back years the 49ers have spent first-round picks on massive defensive ends out of Oregon in 2015 17th-overall pick Arik Armstead and 2016 6th-overall pick DeForest Buckner. Armstead (6-7, 292 lbs.) had an up and down rookie season but flashed impressive physical tools, especially as an interior pass-rusher. At an impressive 6-7, 300 lbs., Buckner is a carbon copy of Armstead, suited to stop the run on early downs while shifting inside as a pass-rusher in nickel/dime formations. Considering their youth neither are finished products and are prone to bouts of inconsistency, but both are extremely impressive prospects who could potentially ruin an opponent’s rushing game at any given time. With projected starter Ian Williams out for the season, the Niners will rotate Mike Purcell and Glenn Dorsey at nose tackle, both of which are replacement-level players. Dorsey had an impressive run with the Chiefs early in his career but has since battled injuries that have limited him for the past few seasons.

Behind the starters is Quinton Dial, an underrated lineman who does a good job stuffing the run but doesn’t provide much in the way of pass rush when rotated in for Buckner and Armstead. Versatile rookie Ronald Blair also rotates in with this group at times but Armstead, Buckner, Purcell, Dial, and Dorsey will get the vast majority of the snaps.

Linebackers

Led by 4-time first-team All-Pro Navorro Bowman this unit is the best on the 49ers roster. After missing the entire 2014 season Bowman bounced back in 2015 with yet another first-team All-Pro performance. He is a 3-down player that is the entire package, able to cover, blitz, and aggressively stuff the run. After Luke Kuechly this may be the best pure linebacker in the league. This unit is not just all about Bowman though as two-time All-Pro veteran outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks is one of the better run-stuffing 3-4 OLB’s in the league. He lacks the speed to be up there with the Von Miller’s of the world as a pass-rusher but he does play with great power and has put up at least six sacks every season for the past five seasons. Brooks is the primary threat off the edge that the Cowboys offensive line must account for.

Opposite Brooks is 2015 third-round pick Eli Harold out of Virginia. Harold has yet to record a sack, although he was a highly touted pass-rushing prospect that some thought had a chance to be a first-round pick. The versatile Tank Carradine rotates in behind Brooks and Harold, although he’s also able to play with his hand down on the line. Next to Bowman the Niners start Gerald Hodges, a versatile veteran who is able to effectively play the run and the pass but is not much of a game changer.

Secondary

This is a talented and physical, yet inconsistent, unit led by former first-round pick Eric Reid and ex-Indianapolis Colt Antoine Bethea at safety. Reid is a physical player who can struggle at times in coverage, although he has generally been a good player for the Niners despite not fully living up to his status as the 18th-overall pick in 2013. Veteran Antoine Bethea missed about half of the 2015 season and it was a big loss considering that he is the best coverage safety on the roster. In 2014 the Niners were ranked fifth-best in the league in pass yards given up, although in 2015 they dropped to fifth-worst despite the majority of their secondary remaining intact outside of Bethea. Now that Bethea is back and playing well this could be a formidable unit.

2014 first-round pick Jimmie Ward and veteran Tramaine Brock actually form one of the better cornerback duos in the league, although Ward will miss Sunday’s game with a quad injury. Second-year man Keith Reaser will likely make his first career start with Ward out of the lineup. Behind the starters is rookie Rashard Robinson and former UDFA Chris Davis. With Ward out the depth is clearly lacking at cornerback.

The loss of Ward will hurt in more ways than one though as he is something of a safety/corner hybrid, and was often moved around the formation as a versatile chess piece. 2015 second-round pick Jaquiski Tartt is the team’s third safety but he has struggled since entering the league and hasn’t seen the field much, although that may change now with Ward out.

Where The Cowboys Can Take Advantage:

  • No real pass-rush threats outside of Brooks, who has never posted double digit sacks in a season
  • Buckner and Armstead are young and inconsistent at defensive end, while the rotation at nose tackle is made up of replacement-level players
  • Lack of depth at cornerback

What The Cowboys Must Fear:

  • Aggressive, physical, and versatile linebackers and safeties led by an All-Pro in Bowman
  • If Buckner and Armstead are having a good day they will be a handful for the interior of the offensive line along with Dial

Special Teams

The 49ers kicker is the 41-year-old ageless wonder Phil Dawson. After spending more than a decade in Cleveland, Dawson joined the team in 2013 and has made about 86% of his field goal attempts since then. Jeremy Kerley must be accounted for in the return game as he has a career average of over nine yards per return.