Former 49ers linebacker and KNBR analysis and color commentator Gary Plummer is back again this year with his Points of the Game, a weekly online column that previews the upcoming opponent. Check out some of his views on Sunday's road game against the Dallas Cowboys.**
I don't think the Cowboys 6-4 record has much to do with all the preseason hype and expectations surrounding the team. I also don't think the HBO cameras being there filming them in training camp has anything to do with it. They've had injuries to the most important position on the field – quarterback. Tony Romo broke his pinky finger on his throwing hand against the Arizona Cardinals, and missed three games and that makes all the difference in the world.
The Cowboys also had to deal with the suspension of Adam Jones. They've had some other injuries in the secondary as well, with safety Roy Williams being out for the season with a broken left forearm. They've even had injuries at the running back position, with rookie Felix Jones missing the last four games with a partial hamstring tear, and now going on I/R with a toe injury.
When those things happen to your team, it really makes all the difference in the world when it comes to wins and losses.
You've heard Dallas players and coaches this week talking about the importance of Romo, and so it's clear that they're a different team with him in there. While their backup Brad Johnson has been a Super Bowl-winning quarterback and has been effective in this league, he's old. And Romo is a great quarterback, who can do it all. He has great pocket awareness, excellent arm strength and has a great knowledge of their offense. They're a completely different football team with him, and without him, they were a less-efficient team.
The 49ers will have a tough matchup against Marion Barber. The Cowboys running back had the last eleven touches in their 14-10 victory over the Washington Redskins last week.
Having a back like Barber opens up their passing game because they love to go play-action off of the running game, and what helps Dallas with that is their offensive line. They're massive and they're not particularly adept at pass-blocking. So in order for the Cowboys to give Romo enough time, they'll run play-action. Being just a straight drop-back team hasn't worked for them. So, if the running game doesn't work, then the passing game isn't going to work off of it.
For the 49ers defense, the pass rush last week against the Rams was really the best friend to any secondary player or defensive back because it makes coverage so much easier. The 49ers had four sacks last week and that played a part in Clements and Walt Harris coming up with interceptions. When the defense puts the other team in longer yardage situations, it's always going to help the defense. Last week, the 49ers got the Rams in a lot of those situations. And it was easy to do, because the Rams didn't have their run game with Steven Jackson out of action. So, it's going to be a completely animal this week, knowing they have to stop a stud in Barber.
Romo's best target when it comes to the pass is still former 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens. Although he is definitely not what he's been in the past, he can still make big plays. Even though he's not in his prime, he's still better than a large percentage of receivers in the NFL.
When you look at him and newly acquired wide receiver Roy Williams, they're both big receivers. But when you look at the stats from the 49ers-Detroit game, Williams was a non-factor. Part of that was because he was matched up with Nate Clements.
Now, the 49ers are going to have to decide who they put Clements on. Are they going to put him up on TO? Or are they going to put him on Williams again?
I would like to see Clements locked up on Owens, because he's the bigger threat. And I think that's a good matchup for Clements, because he plays very physical and plays better against bigger receivers. He obviously doesn't back down when facing guys like Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Plaxico Burress. Like I said, the best way to cover is obviously the pass rush, but next, is playing physical at the line of scrimmage. There's no other corner in the NFL, who I'd rather have matched up one-on-one than Clements. I expect to see an awful lot of that from him in the game, because if a guy can't get off the line, he can't catch passes.
Switching gears to the 49ers offense, Shaun Hill, who was just named NFC Offensive Player of the Week, has really been impressive since being named the starter. The thing I'm most impressed about is the change or almost paradigm shift that we've seen with Frank Gore getting more touches in Mike Martz's offense.
To Martz's credit, he's taking the suggestions from Mike Singletary about being a physical football team that runs the football. And in my opinion, in terms of personnel, the 49ers are better suited to run the football. Similar to the Cowboys offense, I think Hill benefits from a solid run game.
Gore and Barber are number one and three in the NFL respectively, in how much of their team's offense they account for. So you're going to see two work horse's going at it this Sunday. It might come down to which one of those backs is more productive. I think it's a good challenge for both backs, because you want to play your best when you're going up against the best. I'll guarantee that Gore will be motivated to show why he's being used so much in the 49ers offense.
Last week against the Rams, the 49ers ran the football, used play-action pass, the intermediate passing game and the short passing game. And if it's not broke – don't fix it.
The Cowboys have had to play some younger guys on defense because of the injuries in the secondary. They started playing Anthony Spencer more at outside linebacker over Greg Ellis also.
He's a younger guy, but he adds more speed to their defense.
Another help has been head coach Wade Phillips taking over defensive play-calling duties from defensive coordinator Brian Stewart. It's his defense. He's the guy who brought it there and he's the guy who installed it. He knows that defense inside and out. And he's been running it for 30 years. Different coordinators are going to call things in different ways, and Phillips has made some subtle changes, one of which is that he's being more aggressive with the play-calling. He's going to go after people more. If you think back to when the San Diego Chargers were at their peak of success on defense, it was because Phillips was their coordinator. He loves to get after people and loves having big linebackers in their 3-4 defense bring pressure off the edge on opposing quarterbacks.
One key to the game is 49ers return specialist Allen Rossum. If you look statistically in the NFL, starting inside the 20-yard line and scoring is tough to do. It's hard to go 80-plus yards and then score a touchdown. So for every ten yards that Rossum brings the ball out, it's like picking up a couple of first downs and your chances of scoring go up. Anytime he brings it close to the 30-yard line, it really helps the offense's chances of scoring.
He's also first in the NFC in punt returns, averaging 16.9 yards per return, and that's like picking up 1.5 first downs on his own.
I know 49ers fans still have strong dislike for the Cowboys, but I think that's sort of lost on the current group of players. There's nobody on the current roster who played in those huge rivalry games. Instead, I think these guys are concerned with continuing upon what they've done the last few weeks under Mike Singletary. They want to play physical football and beat a talented team on their home field.