IRVING, Texas – As I did every week during the season last year, I've written up a report on three opposing players I expect will factor heavily into the Cowboys' tilt with San Francisco on Sunday.
There's no shortage of options for this game against the 49ers – a team that has made three-straight runs deep into the NFL postseason. Of that collection of talent I chose a weapon, a dynamic playmaker, a nemesis, someone who has typically fared well against the Cowboys and an under the radar player – a newcomer I expect to shine.
We'll start with San Francisco Pro Bowler Vernon Davis, and how the Cowboys defense intends to cover him.
Weapon: Vernon Davis, Tight End
Davis is one of the most dynamic players in the NFL today. He is a nightmare for defensive coordinators to gameplan for because of the flexibility in where he can line up in multiple spots in the formation. The question is whether you treat him as a wide receiver, like the Seahawks did in the NFC Championship Game, walking Richard Sherman over the top of him, or do you play him with a linebacker and safety combination? With Davis you get receiver routes from a tight end position. The majority of them are down the field and usually crossing the formation. He shows the ability to release up the field with a burst and he is able to extend it. There is separation to his game. He can run away from the defender with ease. In scouting terms we would say that he has "blue" hands. No matter where he is on the field he is going to catch the ball. His ability to adjust to the ball is outstanding and his run after the catch is rare. How the Cowboys gameplan for him could make or break how this game turns for them.
Nemesis: Patrick Willis, Linebacker
When they draw up how an inside linebacker should play, Patrick Willis is that example. Whether it is playing at the point of attack or working to the sideline to bring a ball carrier down, Willis gets the job done. His lateral range and burst is one of the best that I have ever seen. He is just so natural in the way he flows to the ball. It is rare to see him out of position on the play. He plays with outstanding body control and agility. He can strike with power to shock the blocker and move to the ball. I have always been impressed with his feet and how active he is with them. He is always on the move. There is no hesitation in the way he plays. When he sees the ball, he is gone. He has the ability to key and diagnose with the best of them. His ability to read scheme helps him makes plays. He's smart in the way he reacts to the ball. He's aware of where he needs to drop in zone coverage to defend the pass, but he has the athletic ability to also carry potential receivers up the field. He has a nice feel for how to play coverage. In two career games against the Cowboys, Willis has averaged eight tackles. If not accounted for he could hit that number easily.
Under The Radar: Jimmie Ward, Safety [embedded_ad] When studying players for this past NFL draft, Jimmie Ward from Northern Illinois was one of my favorite players. If the Cowboys had decided to trade back in the first round, Ward was a player I was targeting. What I liked about Ward was that he was a converted cornerback playing with a high degree of toughness that you normally wouldn't see from a cornerback. His ability to come forward and strike ball carriers was impressive. For a player his size (5-10, 193) there was some explosion. It was this ability to support the run is what got him noticed with me. In studying the game the 49ers played against the Chargers this preseason, he was getting snaps as the nickel corner playing out of the slot. He had done this before in college with absolutely no issues at all. In this game against the Chargers his instincts and movements proved to be very much the same. He showed awareness along with the mental toughness to handle the assignment of having to defend the entire field. There is tremendous value in what he can do to help your defense and I believe this is why the 49ers drafted him when they did. With the way that Scott Linehan likes to spread defenses out, he should see plenty of action on Sunday.