Here are the key matchups for the Cowboys' showdown Sunday with the San Francisco 49ers:
Cowboys safeties vs. 49ers TE Vernon Davis: Rob Ryan has to be real careful in this matchup because Davis has the ability to make plays all over the field.
Jim Harbaugh is the play-caller for the 49ers and likes to move and mix his formations to create mismatches. Harbaugh knows the condition of the Cowboys secondary, but he also can’t allow Ryan to blitz the way he did last week against the Jets.
The best friend of a quarterback that is struggling to find his way is a quality tight end. Last week it was Dustin Keller for Mark Sanchez; this week it’s Davis for Alex Smith.
The one thing that the Cowboys cannot allow is for Davis to have free access in the routes. By free access, I mean they can’t just let him get into his routes. The Cowboys need to make him fight all day off the line and down the field. Harbaugh will counter by moving and flexing him off the line.
Harbaugh is trying to give Smith some easy throws to make. He will work Davis back underneath on the boots off misdirection or work him down the field in space, but you will see Smith trying to get him the ball. Davis was the 49ers’ leading receiver last week against the Seahawks.
When he studies the Jets tape, Davis will see some of the success that Keller had against the Cowboys. Ryan must find a way in this game to combat the way that Harbaugh wants to use Davis in this passing game.
Cowboys RT Tyron Smith vs. 49ers DE Ray McDonald: McDonald will line up is right on the nose of Tyron Smith. McDonald will move inside in the nickel along with Justin Smith, and outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks will put his hand on the ground and become the fourth rusher.
I was really impressed by the way that McDonald played on tape. He is a powerful man at 6-foot-3 and 290 pounds. He doesn’t have a ton of pass-rush moves, but he has good upper body strength. He showed the ability to walk tackles back into the quarterback and squeeze the pocket that way.
In his short body of work, Smith’s biggest problem is when defenders take him hard down inside to his left. He doesn’t have the punch on the left side to stop a defender’s charge, but this is strength that he will develop as he matures. Smith is at his very best when he can take a rusher wide.
That’s not the strength of McDonald’s, but he plays with relentless effort both run and pass, so Smith needs to finish his blocks. If Smith lets up for just a count, McDonald will be at the ball carrier or hitting Tony Romo in the face.
Smith’s strength is his ability to move; McDonald’s is his power. How Smith handles him will affect how the Cowboys operate on offense.
Cowboys DC Rob Ryan vs. 49ers QB Alex Smith: Ryan will once again have to pull a rabbit out of his hat this week against the 49ers as he opens the game with a banged-up right corner, his fourth corner starting on the left side, his fifth corner as the nickel and a veteran off the street for depth.
To Ryan’s credit, he faced a similar situation against the Jets and was able to piece it all together. Ryan understands the cards, now he needs to play the hand.
I look for Ryan to pressure Smith much like he did Sanchez. Ryan will not allow Smith to feel comfortable in the pocket for one minute.
This 49ers’ offensive line across the board is nowhere as good as the Jets. Look for Ryan to take the approach that he will bring pressure to protect his secondary. If he can get DeMarcus Ware or a linebacker or defensive back home before Smith gets rid of the ball, then he will control this game.
Smith will want to get rid of the ball quickly much like Sanchez did. The problem is that Smith, like Sanchez, will struggle with his accuracy. Ryan had his front seven locked in last week. He will need the same this week to rattle Smith, who is not a confident quarterback.