The games have started and the first weekend of the NFL season is upon us. We've covered just about every aspect of the Cowboys' preparations for the 49ers, but we figured it'd be smart to get the San Francisco angle.
With that in mind, we asked Taylor Price, senior reporter for 49ers.com, to answer some questions about the Niners.
1. How does San Francisco replace the production of Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman?
Let's not be naïve here. It's going to be nearly impossible to replicate what the 49ers had with Smith and Bowman in the starting front seven. Smith is one of, if not the, top pass-rushing outside linebacker in the National Football League. You simply can't replace a player who has totaled 42 sacks in 43 games. The same goes for Bowman, an All-Pro inside 'backer, who made his presence felt all over the football field when healthy.
So back to your question – the best way to replace those two stud linebackers is to play team defense. Dan Skuta and Michael Wilhoite are likely going to fill in for Smith and Bowman, respectively. Both linebackers have NFL experience and will able to make plays in Week 1. They might not produce as many eye-catching moments as the stars they're replacing, but they'll be able to make sound football plays and help the 49ers defense. The other nine players on the field can do their part by being in position to make plays throughout the course of the game. If San Francisco plays team defense and sticks to its fundamentals, the absences of Smith and Bowman won't be as glaring as one would expect.
2. Outside of the household names – Kap, Gore, Davis, Crabtree, Boldin, Willis – is there an unheralded 49er you think will shine this weekend, or this season in general?
One player who isn't a household name, but has the league-wide reputation for being a difference-maker, is
outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks. The nine-year pro recorded a career-high 8.5 sacks last season on his way to earning a second Pro Bowl invitation. Brooks will be under the microscope with Smith's nine-game suspension starting this week and there's no doubt that Brooks will be counted on to be the team's top pass-rusher, especially when he's rushing against the opponent's right tackle. Brooks' matchup against Cowboys right tackle Doug Free figures to be a key battle this Sunday.
Another under-the-radar name that deserves ink would be first-round draft pick Jimmie Ward. The Northern Illinois defensive back will be a starter of sorts from day one of his NFL career. San Francisco drafted Ward to be the starting nickel cornerback, and that's a job that he earned over the course of training camp and four preseason games. With the NFL's pass-heavy emphasis being so prevalent in 2014, Ward will have a big say in how the defense performs against the likes of Tony Romo and the Cowboys passing attack.
3. The Cowboys acquired C.J. Spillman on Monday after he was cut by San Francisco. What was his role with the 49ers, particularly on special teams, and what can Cowboys fans expect to see?
Spillman led the 49ers with 19 special teams tackles last season, and he's always been a "trusted agent," to steal a Jim Harbaugh-ism. Spillman lined up as a gunner on punt team and was also a key perimeter coverage player on the kick-off team. It'll be interesting to see how Spillman performs against San Francisco's special teams groups, including undrafted rookie safety L.J. McCray, who is in the mix to play gunner along with Ward and 12-year veteran receiver Kassim Osgood.
Spillman had a knack of reaching out and tripping up an opposing return man, even if he was a few yards away from making the tackle. Spillman also had a role on defense as a goal-line defensive back. He's a sure tackler in short-yardage scenarios and he can help stop the run if Dallas needs a physical presence around the line of scrimmage.
In addition, I supplied some answers to 49ers.com about the Cowboys. 1. What do the Cowboys need to do in order to beat the 49ers?
They need to keep their defense off the field as much as possible.
I guess that might sound too simplistic, but all signs from the offseason and the preseason point toward the
Dallas defense suffering through another woeful year in 2014. The offense, meanwhile, bulked up its offensive line and boasts an impressive five starters who have been to at least one Pro Bowl. The pressure is on that offense to not just score, but shorten the game in the process – whether that's with DeMarco Murray and the running game or some high-percentage passing.
If the preseason is any indicator, the 49ers will move the ball at will between the 20's, but Dallas has shown an ability to hold when it counts. In the dress rehearsal preseason game, the Cowboys allowed 490 yards to Miami but managed to limit the first-team offense to just two field goals. Similarly, the Cowboys' first-team defense managed two goal line stands against San Diego's starters.
If the Dallas defense can get some takeaways, or at least force Colin Kaepernick and Co. to settle for field goals, they can give the offense a chance to win the game.
2. Which Cowboys player are you most eager to see carry a strong training camp/preseason into Week 1? [embedded_ad]
Rolando McClain entered training camp as a top-10 draft bust with a bizarre past and a seemingly slim chance of returning to the NFL. With the opener in sight, he looks like the favorite to start at middle linebacker in place of the injured Sean Lee.
It's obvious McClain has the talent to be a difference-maker, as he was an SEC Defensive Player of the Year and the No. 10 overall pick coming out of Alabama in 2010. He might be the most talented player on the Cowboys' defense, and he showed flashes of that in preseason with his speed, power and nose for the ball. It remains to be seen if he can salvage his career, but if the Dallas defense is going to surprise anyone, McClain needs to rise to the occasion.
I'll throw in Zack Martin while I'm at it. The offensive lineman out of Notre Dame was hailed as the "safe" pick at No. 16 overall in May, and the Cowboys famously drafted him instead of Johnny Manziel. He has been the starter at right guard from Day 1, and the coaching staff is confident he could play any of the five spots on the line if necessary.
Martin held his own throughout training camp, and his battles with Pro Bowler Henry Melton were some of the most entertaining moments of the summer. That raises the question, is Martin ready to dominate as a rookie, or was he simply practicing against a suspect defensive line? The 49ers should help us find out.
3. Which player should the 49ers defense be most concerned about?
Dez Bryant, no doubt about it.
Tony Romo is the key to the Cowboys having a successful season – he has got to stay healthy if they're going to make a playoff push. But if the question is about one game, I have to say Bryant. Having watched him every day at training camp for two years and in plenty of game situations, I'm convinced he could put up big numbers if Jason Garrett was his quarterback, instead of Romo.
Bryant makes highlight reel plays look routine, and the focus on him should also open up the field for his teammates. This season looks particularly exciting for Bryant for a variety of reasons. Chief among them is that Bryant will be working with a new offensive coordinator in Scott Linehan, who called the plays in Detroit during Calvin Johnson's rise to league dominance. With Linehan calling the shots for the Lions, Johnson moved all over their formations and was targeted an average of 11 times per game from 2009-13. The hope is Linehan will put the same amount of focus on Bryant's tremendous talent.
This is a contract year for Bryant, and it looks likely that he's going to earn himself a lucrative deal in the near future.