49ers Week 1 primer: Can San Francisco exploit a weak Cowboys’ defense?

Any fan knows there’s just something special about a San Francisco 49ers/Dallas Cowboys football game. The franchises were once the NFL’s greatest rivalry, and the narrative has provided countless memories and big moments throughout the years.

The two teams will try and rekindle that fire again in Week 1 to kick off their 2014 seasons, although each with very different expectations.

The Niners have a “Super Bowl or bust” feel to them this year, while Dallas could struggle to stay in the middle of the pack (mainly) because of issues with their defense.

Overall, the 49ers are 14-11-1 in 26 regular season matchups with the Cowboys. However, Dallas has ended San Francisco’s season five times in seven tries in the playoffs.

Recent History

The 49ers and Cowboys last met in 2011, which was Jim Harbaugh‘s second game as San Francisco’s head coach. Not much was expected out of the Niners at the time, so it was surprising to see them jump out to a 14-0 lead. Dallas stormed back however, and won the game 27-24 in overtime behind 345 yards and two touchdown passes from Tony Romo.

Alex Smith added two touchdown throws of his own, but the offense struggled on the day with only 206 total yards. Despite the setback, the 49ers would go on a roll after the game, winning eight in a row on their way to a 13-3 season. The Cowboys, as they tend to do, finished 8-8.

Players to watch

Considering NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith are arguably the two best players on the 49ers, it’s an understatement to say being able to replace them will be difficult. San Francisco will turn to Michael Wilhoite to fill in for Bowman, while Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier will man the outside for Smith.

All three played well when called upon in 2013, but now have to show they can be consistent over what will amount to over half a season. It begins against a Cowboys’ offense that will look to throw the ball early and often. How they perform will have a lot to do with whether of not the 49ers can slow Dallas’ offensive attack.

Staying with the passing game, the Cowboys’ best chance in this game rests on the shoulders of Romo. The veteran quarterback is coming off of season-ending back surgery, and will look to prove he has returned to 100 percent.

New offensive coordinator Scott Linehan likes to throw the ball, and it’ safe to say he’ll have Romo dropping back over 30 times. If he’s on, Romo could exploit a 49ers’ secondary that is breaking in some new pieces.

Game changing factor

The Cowboys’ defense was historically bad last season, giving up 6,645 total yards (worst in the NFL). Things don’t look much better for Dallas heading into 2014, as they will be without pass rusher DeMarcus Ware (now with the Denver Broncos) and  linebacker Sean Lee (out for season). The unit gave up an average of 29 points a game during a winless preseason.

The 49ers will get the opportunity to exploit this weakness, which could be just what the doctor ordered for Colin Kaepernick and an offense that struggled to get into rhythm during their exhibition slate. 

Stats to know

Frank Gore is closing in on a feat only 28 other players have accomplished: 10,000 yards rushing.

The team’s all-time leading runner is 33 yards away, as he comes into the game with 9,967. As long he he stays healthy, Gore should get this total easily against Dallas, and could even break 11,000 yards by season’s end (which would put him in rare company).

Bottom line

The Cowboys should be able to score enough to make this a game, but in the end the 49ers are a better team on both sides of the ball. Look for the offensive woes in San Francisco to be a thing of the past as the Niners exploit a weak Dallas defense en route to a Week 1 victory. 

Photo: Brant Ward, The Chronicle

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Al Sacco

Al Sacco is sports expert who knows football, baseball, basketball and hockey. He has spent his time as a sports journalist covering the San Francisco 49ers as a contributor to 49erswebzone.com and Ninerfans.com. He's been a guest on numerous podcasts and has had his work used on ESPN NFL Insiders and USA TODAY.


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