Cowboys won't sleep on 49ers defense

IRVING, Texas -- Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman have instant name recognition with even casual NFL fans. They’ve been superstars on one of the NFL’s most dominant defenses the past few years.

Who the heck are Dan Skuta and Michael Wilhoite?

The short answer is that Skuta and Wilhoite are the guys expected to replace Smith (suspended) and Bowman (physically unable to perform list) in the San Francisco 49ers’ starting lineup for Sunday’s season opener at AT&T Stadium. But good luck finding anyone at Valley Ranch who will admit that the Dallas Cowboys find comfort in the drop-off from Pro Bowlers to backups.

“They’re good football players,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said when asked what he knows about Skuta and Wilhoite. “Each of those guys you can tell loves to play football. They’re physical players, and they’ve stepped into those roles they’ve been asked to step into. It doesn’t seem like they’ve skipped a beat at all on defense.”

How could the San Francisco defense not skip a beat?

Smith, the talented but troubled outside linebacker who is suspended for the first nine games of the season, has a chance to be one of the premier pass rushers in NFL history. He has 42 sacks in 43 career games. Skuta, a five-year veteran, has a grand total of a half sack in his career.

Bowman, who is recovering from the serious knee injury he suffered in the NFC Championship Game, makes all kinds of plays. He’s racked up nine sacks, seven forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries and three interceptions while making the Pro Bowl the past three seasons. Wilhoite has zeroes across the board in each of those categories for his three-year career.

“Regardless of who is on the field for the 49ers, they are going to come to play,” receiver Dez Bryant said. “You can tell that they play with a mentality.”

It’s not as if San Francisco lacks talent on defense even with two Pro Bowlers watching from home. Garrett still says the 49ers might have the best front seven in the league.

Patrick Willis is as good as any inside linebacker in the league. Defensive end Justin Smith has made five straight Pro Bowls. Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks played in the Pro Bowl last season.

Quarterback Tony Romo says the Cowboys might not have a better test all season, a statement he’ll surely revise before their trip to Seattle. The point is the Cowboys won’t be caught sleeping on a defense that has been dominant just because two of its best players won’t make the trip.

“Look, I got so much respect for them,” tight end Jason Witten said. “I mean obviously they got some really good players that are out, there’s no denying that, but they know what they are. They’re tough. They’re physical. They play downhill. They tackle well. They’re always in the right position, good technique.

“Just everything you want, they do it. Stop the run, they play good coverage. They get pressure on the quarterback. We’ve got to just match that intensity, and we know it’s going to be a tough physical game. We’ve got to take advantage of every opportunity that we have.”