It’s slightly ironic that, as we emerge from mourning the recent death of Dwight Clark, the team that will never forget The Catch which doomed it to football obscurity for years is in town for a preseason game.
But they’re here. America’s Team. The Boys. Next Year’s Champions. The Not Quite Ready for Prime Time Bunch. Whatever you want to label them, they will be playing against the 49ers tonight.
One nickname – the Doomsday Defense – stands out to me. Okay, it’s the preseason, and we don’t know with absolute certainty who will be seeing the field, but the question remains: Is Dallas in a position to give Jimmy G and the Niners’ offense a tough time? And what about Dallas’ offense against the Niners’ defense. Given how the respective strengths and weaknesses of each group mesh, we could be in for an intriguing matchup. Scott and I will take a look why…
Cowboys’ defense vs 49ers’ offense (Mike Messner)
Given the question marks over the 49ers’ interior offensive line, the absence of Maliek Collins is probably a blessing for the 49ers, but it will provide a good opportunity for either Antwaun Woods or Brian Price on Thursday. Woods has been a star in training camp, rising from the bottom of the depth chart to the top within a week, and has shown that he’s not afraid to mix it up with higher-profile players (Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick got into a fight with Woods last weekend during practice). Both Jihad Ward and David Irving could also create some issues, as interior pass rushers who possess the combination of quickness and power that the 49ers’ interior linemen have struggled with.
Of course, DeMarcus Lawrence is a a force who could do damage to the 49ers in what promises to be limited snaps – Mike McGlinchey is likely to face a tough examination from a man who beat Joe Staley for a sack-fumble last year. Behind Lawrence – Kony Ealy, Tyrone Crawford, Randy Gregory and Taco Charlton offer a blend of run stopping and pass rushing ability which should make for an interesting battle on the edges of the trenches. Watch out for Taco Charlton’s spin move.
Outside of Sean Lee, there are certainly question marks at linebacker for Dallas. Lee is a masterful defender, especially against the run, and the 49ers’ running backs will likely find Lee in their personal space a few times tonight. Jaylon Smith’s recovery from his devastating knee injury continues – he has yet to live up to his sensational college performances but appears healthier than ever this offseason. Fortunately for the Niners, a nickel pairing of Chris Covington, the 6th-round draft pick this year, and Damien Wilson are likely to see the field for much of tonight’s game.
As for the SAM position, Wilson is in the mix there too (although my sense is that outside of Lee and to an extent Smith, the overall linebacker corps is so unsettled in Dallas, they’re just shuffling players around to see what sticks). Rookies Leighton Vander Esch and Joel Lanning will be rotating in and out of the game on Thursday, trying to prove they belong on the team. The disorder in this group might play to the mid-range passing game the Niners thrive on – we’ll see. The likes of Richie James, Kendrick Bourne and Cole Hikutini could get a real opportunity later in the game to make a positive impression against the Cowboys’ soft middle.
This soft middle is further affected by a lack of depth at the safety position. Xavier Woods will be the strong safety with the most experience, although it’s limited to one year and he isn’t the greatest in pass coverage. Kavon Frazier desperately wants the starting role as strong safety, but he lacks starter qualities and seems like more of a special teams guy.
At free safety, the story is even less encouraging after you look at probable starter Jeff Heath (who is a genuine threat at the position). The depth options at free safety are Jameill Showers (a 222-pound converted quarterback) and Marqueston Huff (who’s been signed and cut by five teams since 2014). The weakness at these spots could also weaken the Cowboys’ deep passing defense, which could compound a lack of experience there – though there is certainly quality and depth.
Anthony Brown is the veteran with the most experience, whilst Byron Jones’ move from safety to corner is reportedly going well. One newcomer to the team that could spell trouble for the Niners passing game is Chavarius Ward, who has routinely gotten his hands on passes all through training camp – he could pose a playmaking threat to the 49ers’ backup quarterbacks.
Chidobie Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Marquez White are also all useful, NFL calibre players. This is ideal for the 49ers, as they seek to start to differentiate between their own similarly talented receiving corps. Going up against a defense with solid depth at corner is a great way to start that process, whilst the Cowboys comparative height at corner makes for an interesting schematic battle.
Overall, the Niners will need to use their running game carefully, given that the Dallas defensive line is respectably strong and at least some of their linebackers are actually quite good. Their passing game has to be accurate and selective to make up for the Cowboys’ height at cornerback, but if their quarterbacks can avoid making stupid throws and their receivers can hold onto the ball, they can take advantage of a disorganized linebacker corps and slim depth at safety.
The battles along the edges will be the most interesting and competitive, both between the Cowboys’ defensive ends and the 49ers’ offensive tackles; and between the Cowboys’ cornerbacks and the 49ers’ wide receivers.
Cowboys’ offense vs 49ers’ defense (Scott Geelan)
We all know about the purported strength of the Cowboys’ starting offensive line, and we will hopefully be treated to a real battle royale between them and the 49ers’ starters for at least a couple of drives. There are nevertheless a couple of question marks – at left guard and right tackle where rookie Connor Williams and former guard La’el Collins line up respectively. Solomon Thomas should view those question marks as an opportunity for him to make a positive early impression to his sophomore season as both a run defender on the edge and as a pass rusher through the middle. DeForest Bucker could also make a sharp early impression, as he tests himself against a talent range from the NFL’s best to a rookie.
The depth along the Cowboys’ offensive line does fall away quickly however – look out for rookie Jullian Taylor to make a splash given he should see snaps against both the starters as well as backups, the latter of whom he has the tools to absolutely dominate. Furthermore, edge rushers Cassius Marsh, Jeremiah Attaochu, Dekoda Watson, Pita Taumopenu and Eli Harold should be excited at the prospect of going up against Cameron Fleming and Chaz Green (the man who gave up 6 sacks to Adrian Clayborn last year). All in all, the 49ers’ backup linemen all have a real chance to make some plays given their talent levels and a lack of quality depth up front in Dallas.
The Cowboys’ running backs are a solid group running the ball, but given the aforementioned lack of depth along the offensive line, the 49ers’ linebackers too have the opportunity to make some plays in the Cowboys’ backfield. The big question is likely to be how well they hold up in coverage. We know Reuben Foster can play, but the likes of Brock Coyle and Malcolm Smith do not appear to be solid coverage players and with the Cowboys likely to favour a quick passing game (especially as the match develops) we will get a good idea just how effective they are. Resultantly, rookie Fred Warner and sophomore Elijah Lee could well stand out in coverage in comparison to their peers. It will also be interesting to see how well sophomore player Taumoepenu can set the edge at SAM alongside his aforementioned pass rushing responsibilities. His performances this offseason could have a significant bearing on Eli Harold’s future as a 49er, and he should have a favourable matchup for much of today’s game.
In the passing game, the Cowboys are not blessed with quarterbacks who excel throwing deep (even starter Dak Prescott is a much better short and intermediate passer), and their receiving corps reflects that. Though they do have a couple of burners in Tavon Austin and Deonte Thompson, but the former has shown nothing as a deep threat and the latter is a rookie. The only dangerous deep threats the Cowboys would seem to possess at this stage are Allen Hurns and Terrance Williams, though both are more talented at winning at the catch point than they are at streaking past receivers. This could have two major knock on effects. Firstly, the 49ers can safely stack the box which will impact the Cowboys’ rushing attack and short to intermediate passing attack. Secondly, it could alleviate the 49ers’ possible weakness at outside cornerback with the absence of Richard Sherman, given their outside corners are generally responsible for a deep outside third. That being said, it’s exciting to think that Ahkello Witherspoon, Tarvarius Moore, Greg Mabin and Tyvis Powell should match up well with their opposite numbers at receiver and they will have a chance to demonstrate their soundness within the scheme without being tested by top tier talent.
Inside, at both nickel back and safety, we know the qualities of the 49ers’ starters. Starting safeties Jaquiski Tartt and Adrian Colbert could find themselves being relatively busy, especially the former in the rushing and short-intermediate passing games, whilst the latter might get the opportunity to pick off some air mailed deep balls or capitalise on tipped passes that are a by-product of crowded short to intermediate areas and a lack of separation on the outside. K’waun Williams is likely to miss out, so expect DJ Reed to start inside – a player whose excellent ball skills may well come in handy. The backup safeties could be in for an interesting day – with Chanceller James and Marcell Harris likely in serious competition for a roster spot and set for a busy day as run defenders and coverage players. At free safety, we could also see the aforementioned DJ Reed make an appearance, whilst Antone Exum or Jimmie Ward could also see snaps deeper.
Fundamentally, we are likely to see the vast majority of this battle take place within 15 yards of the LOS, placing a real emphasis on the 49ers’ underneath coverage and run defense. Given the logjam along the defensive line, at linebacker and behind Jaquiski Tartt at strong safety, this is no bad thing. Furthermore, we should get a great opportunity to watch the 49ers’ inexperienced cornerbacks go up against a set of receivers who don’t have the quality which will take them massively out of their comfort zones – enabling them to focus on their fundamentals.