Eddie Middlebrook breaks down the matchups in the Cowboys' regular season opener against San Francisco.
DALLAS vs. SAN FRANCISCO
Kickoff: 3:25 p.m., AT&T Stadium
TV: 3:25 p.m., FOX
Radio: 12:30 p.m., 105.3 The Fan
Records: Dallas 0-0, San Francisco 0-0
Series: Tied, 16-16-1
Last meeting: Dallas, 27-24 OT (2011, in San Francisco)
Betting line: San Francisco -4.5
Weather: 92 degrees, 20 percent chance of rain
It's a clean slate for your Dallas Cowboys. Forget the 0-4 preseason, the three consecutive 8-8 regular seasons and the years of mediocrity. It is Week 1 and everyone has a chance to start the season on the right track. Let's see how these two teams match up:
Dallas offense vs. San Francisco defense
Tony Romo should be good to go on Sunday and he will be protected by a more talented offensive line thanks to first-round draft pick Zack Martin.
For as much credit as we give to the Cowboys offense, they only finished 16th in total offense in 2013, but were fifth in scoring. I will say it multiple times as the season progresses, but this team needs to establish the running game. Dallas has one of the best left tackles in the game and are solid across the OL combined with a top-five running back in DeMarco Murray. There are simply no excuses for Murray to get less than 20 carries in this game.
Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith talking about what the Cowboys need to do:
"They need to run the football. They need to be balanced. The Cowboys have not shown a balanced attack with running the football since Julius Jones left. They "talk" about running the football, but they probably don't run the football more than 20 times a game. If the Cowboys truly want to turn this ship around, that's what they need to do."
See the entire interview here.
Smith wasn't far off as Dallas actually average more than 21 attempts a game, but that ranked 31st in the NFL. Murray finished 10th in the NFL in rushing, but the other nine running backs averaged more than 284 carries for the season. He only had 20 or more carries three times last season and 11 in his three-year career. Dallas is 11-0 in those games.
The 49ers feature a 3-4 defense that was fifth in the NFL in total yards allowed and third in points allowed, but will be without superstar Aldon Smith, who is suspended for nine games.
Romo knows they are still a defense to be reckoned with:
"I think they're actually exceptional,'' Romo said. "One player doesn't make that defense. You have a bunch of outstanding football players. They're very physical.
Defensive end Ray McDonald is also looking at a suspension, but he is expected to play against Dallas. The 49ers still have what Pro Football Focus considers an elite player in Patrick Willis, along with outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks and cornerback Tramaine Brock who are considered good starters. Defensive end Justin Smith is considered high quality.
Their obvious strength is their front seven, which will put pressure on the Cowboys' offensive line and running game. The 49ers were fourth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed in 2013 (95.9).
Even without Aldon Smith, this 49ers defense will be one of the toughest the Cowboys will face all season.
Edge: SAN FRANCISCO
Dallas defense vs. San Francisco offense
We all know how bad the Dallas defense was last season, and now they are without Sean Lee for the entire season and Orlando Scandrick for four games due to suspension.
The big question marks are:
- How much can the team expect out of former Pro-Bowler Henry Melton?
- Will Morris Claiborne stay on the field and better yet, be effective?
- Does Rolando McClain care enough about football to make an impact?
There are more question marks, but isn't that enough to think about Week 1?
The 49ers know where their bread is buttered and that is with their incredible running game. They were third in the NFL in rushing a year ago and that is not only due to having Frank Gore, but a left side of the line that features tackle Joe Staley and guard Mike Iupati. They are high quality lineman, but the guys on the right-side, Alex Boone and Anthony Davis, are no slouches either. Their only question mark on the OL is Center Daniel Kilgore, a four-year veteran who will be making his first NFL start (33 games played overall).
Former Texas Tech Red Raider Michael Crabtree is questionable for the game due to a nagging calf injury. If Crabtree is unable to play, the 49ers still have plenty of weapons in tight end Vernon Davis and receivers Anquan Boldin and Stevie Johnson.
Edge: SAN FRANCISCO
Romo vs. 49ers secondary: Dallas needs to establish the run even if they only have minimal success to make the passing game more successful. If the 49ers do have a weakness on the defense, it would be the secondary. Brock on the right-side is good, but left-side cornerback Chris Culliver has only made six starts in three seasons and safeties Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid are average at their position.
I would expect Brock to cover Dez Bryant most of the game which means it is important for Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley to make plays when called upon.
Dan Bailey is simply one of the best kickers in the game and you could make an argument that he is the best football player on this Dallas team. For his career, he is 89-of-98 with five of those misses coming from 50-plus yards.
Dwayne Harris is a top five returner in the NFL, as he had a punt return for a touchdown in 2013 and he averaged more than 30 yards per kick return. He can take it to the house whenever the ball touches his hands which makes him a valuable weapon.
Punter Chris Jones was 19th in the NFL last season with a 45 yard average. The weakness of this unit will be in kickoff and punt return coverage due to a lack of depth in the organization.
San Francisco's Punter Andy Lee was third in the league with a 48.2 average. Kicker Phil Dawson is beginning his 15th year in the NFL and is very good (32-of-36 last season). Returner Perrish Cox is a Waco, Texas native and has seen limited action as a kick and punt returner.
It is always good to play at home, but the Cowboys haven't been dominant at AT&T Stadium. Last season, they were 5-3 which includes a Week 17 loss to the Eagles. San Francisco has the better coach and superior talent.
Edge: SAN FRANCISCO
Did You Know?
The Cowboys faced six teams in 2013 that used the 3-4 defense as their base. They were 2-4 in such games with their only wins coming against Washington. Against the 3-4 in 2013, Romo: 131-208, 1,424 yards, nine touchdowns, four interceptions with an 89.54 QB rating.
Prediction: San Francisco 28, Dallas 24
Eddie Middlebrook can be reached on Twitter @emiddlebrook.