SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Sixteen minutes and 21 plays into Sunday's matchup with the San Francisco 49ers, it looked like the Cowboys' defense was in for a long day by the bay.
The 49ers' express pace under head coach Chip Kelly produced two touchdowns on their first two drives. By the start of the second quarter the Cowboys trailed 14-0 and had already allowed 106 passing yards from quarterback Blaine Gabbert – 13 less than his entire total the previous week against Seattle.
"They had us on our heels early," defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said.
Over the final 44 minutes and 33 plays, the defense allowed three points and the Cowboys left Levi's Stadium with a 24-17 victory.
The turnaround was more about execution than adjustments.
"I think we just kind of settled down," said linebacker Sean Lee, who had a team-high 10 tackles. "I thought early in the game some of the pace, some of the assignments weren't perfect. Once we started doing our job perfect every time, getting used to the pace, kind of got used to the game plan, I thought we stopped them and did a good job."
Early on, the 49ers found success on the ground with running back Carlos Hyde and Gabbert on read-option plays. Gabbert carried six times for 21 yards on those first two touchdown drives, and Hyde (15 carries, 74 yards) scored from three yards out for a 14-0 lead.
[embeddedad0]Playing without cornerback Orlando Scandrick (hamstrings) for a second straight game, the defense also gave up two pass plays over 20 yards, including Jeremy Kerley's opening 33-yard touchdown catch. Six players rushed but didn't reach Gabbert.
Gabbert completed only two more passes over 20 yards the rest of the way. Cornerback Morris Claiborne intercepted him on the second drive of the fourth quarter, and the defense forced a punt or turnover on downs on six other possessions.
"I just think we just started executing a little bit better (after) the tempo and all of that at the start of it, and we just got into a rhythm," Marinelli said. "We didn't change anything. We just executed better and we did a nice job."
The Cowboys have now forced at least one turnover in all four games this season – a clear improvement after tallying a league-low 11 takeaways last year. They sacked Gabbert once on Sunday.
Marinelli, who has been mixing up his defensive line rotations, said he still needs more pass rush and more takeaways.
"But I like how hard they play," he said. "They don't give in."
Particularly not in crunch time, either, when Claiborne pushed Torrey Smith out of bounds short of the first-down marker on fourth-and-6 with the 49ers trying to tie the game in the final two minutes.
"I was proud of guys being down 14 and being able to pull it together and play with a certain demeanor," Lee said, "and get back to assignment football."
View some of our favorite photos from the Dallas Cowboys vs San Francisco 49ers game at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California.