When the Dallas Cowboys take on the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, the defense for the Bay Area team will have undergone a change. This one isn’t quite as dramatic as the change at quarterback on offense, but the 49ers have said goodbye to their long-time star linebacker NaVorro Bowman. Of course Bowman was no longer the player he once was because of injury, but the Cowboys were interested in taking a look until the Raiders managed to sign him.
They had hoped rookie Rueben Foster would have been able to step in and take some snaps in the middle. He’s been injured for most of the season and he wasn’t ready to go last week. Instead, they turned to Brock Coyle. The reviews of his play were not good.
But when Foster, out since Week 1 with a sprained ankle, wasn't quite up to speed Sunday and could not be activated, the 49ers were left with Brock Coyle to man the middle in place of the guy who had been their most productive defensive player for years, Bowman.
It did not go well.
Coyle was often seen getting blocked upward of 10 yards downfield on running plays, and even more often dropped so deep into coverage, he allowed easy throws in front of him.
As a result, Washington's running backs and tight ends killed the 49ers in the passing game, combining for 15 receptions for 242 yards.
Foster hasn't played since Week 1 when he suffered a high-ankle sprain. Shanahan said he was "optimistic" Foster would play Sunday against the Cowboys. He said he was not nearly as optimistic last week, which was Foster's first week of practice since the injury.
If Foster plays against Dallas, he will line up at middle linebacker and [Ray-Ray] Armstrong likely will play weak-side linebacker.
The 49ers defense also lost one of its starters last week in defensive lineman Arik Armstead.
The 49ers lost 2015 first-round pick Arik Armstead to a broken hand during Week 6 and Shanahan announced the big defensive end might be done for the season.
His absence will open up more playing time for 2017 first-round pick Solomon Thomas.
Thomas paired with DeForest Buckner to place pressure on Washington for most of the second half. The former Stanford standout led the team with nine tackles and a sack.
With Armstead out and Aaron Lynch sidelined for at least a week, Thomas will get ample opportunity to emerge as a bright spot for the winless 49ers.
Last week against Washington, the 49ers defense did what it usually does. It is a good defense against the run, but they struggle stopping the pass.
2. San Francisco's defense dominated against the run. The 49ers limited Chris Thompson to just 33 yards on 16 carries. Samaje Perine was limited to 23 yards on nine carries. Kirk Cousins was the most effective runner with 26 yards on four carries, including a 7-yard touchdown run.
3. Unfortunately the 49ers defense was less successful against Washington's passing game. Cousins threw for 330 yards and two touchdowns . Much of the damage was done through short passes to Thompson. The running back led the Redskins with four catches for 105 yards. His longest reception was a 49-yard catch-and-run on a screen pass. Davis had three receptions for 65 yards against his former team and had one catch that went for 51 yards. Perine and Josh Doctson had the two touchdown catches.
The 49ers defense is 23rd in points per game (23.4).
They rank 27th in passing yards allowed (262.3) and 18th in rushing yards (112.8). But, they only allow 3.4 yards per rushing attempt, that is good for fifth in the league.
Their defense is poor on stopping third-downs conversions, ranking 31st in the league (47.8%).
They are 25th in yards per pass attempt, allowing 7.8 YPA.
The 49ers are tied for 15th in sacks with 14 on the year, and they are spread out among a group of players with no one having over 3.5 on their own.
The Cowboys will want to continue to establish their running game, something that has improved recently. That is their identity and is paramount to their winning formula. But the 49ers are pretty stingy against the run on a per attempt basis. Instead, the Cowboys may need to go to the air early to open up some room. If Rueben Foster doesn’t play, or is not 100%, the Cowboys may want to attack the middle of the field with running backs and tight ends. That formula was very successful for Washington. Once Dak Prescott establishes that he can pass on the 49ers and they need to back up to guard against it, then Ezekiel Elliott should have room to run and the Cowboys can grind down the 49ers defense.