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49ers 2014 opponent preview, Part 1: Cowboys, Bears, Cardinals

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In part one of our 2014 opponent preview, we examine the prospects of the Cowboys, Bears, and Cardinals for the coming season.

Thearon W. Henderson

After looking at some key statistical indicators from last season and discussing what they could mean for the 49ers prospects in 2014, it's time to turn our attention to San Francisco's opponents.

Over the next few days, I'll be providing you with a snapshot of each of the 13 teams on the 49ers schedule in 2014. I won't be spending any time on how these teams match-up specifically with the 49ers. That's a task I'll be saving for during the season. Instead, think of this as a big-picture look at which direction each team is headed along with a few of the biggest questions they'll be facing in the coming season. There's a lot to get to, so let's get right to it.

Dallas Cowboys

2013 Record: 8-8
Pythagorean Wins: 8.2 (underperformed by 0.2 wins)
Record in Close Games: 5-4 (.556 win percentage, 14th-best)
Strength of Schedule: negative-1.3 percent DVOA (12th-easiest)
Turnover Margin: plus-7 (ninth-best)

For the third consecutive season the Cowboys held destiny in their own hands in the final week of the regular season with a divisional opponent standing between them and a trip to the playoffs. And for the third consecutive season the Cowboys tripped over themselves instead, finishing a perfectly mediocre 8-8 and staying home for the postseason.

The numbers underlying Dallas's most recent 8-8 campaign were also mediocre in just about every way. The Cowboys' Pythagorean expectation matched up with their actual eight wins, they went 5-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less, had league average health, finished 17th in DVOA and did all that against an almost exactly league average schedule.

The one area where the Cowboys quite literally saw the ball bounce their way was fumble recovery rate. Dallas recovered a league-high 67.6 percent of available fumbles. The Cowboys will almost certainly see a few of those loose balls bounce towards their opponent in 2014. Of the top five teams in fumble recovery rate in 2012—Baltimore, Houston, New Orleans, Cincinnati and Chicago—only the Bengals managed to finish in the top 10 in 2013 with the rest landing in the bottom third of the league. There's just no predicting where that funny-shaped ball is going to bounce.

Despite what Skip Bayless-types would have you believe, Dallas's mediocrity is not the result of Tony Romo's unclutchness or Jason Garrett's red hair (okay fine, that might have something to do with it). Rather, it's their sieve-like defense.

The Cowboys were 30th in defensive DVOA last season and while there are certainly issues in the secondary, it's the front seven that is most worrisome. Dallas finished near the bottom of the league in nearly every metric that can be used to evaluate a defense's front seven in Football Outsiders' vast premium database. They couldn't stop the run (28th in run defense DVOA, 29th in Adjusted Line Yards) nor could they rush the passer (26th in Adjusted Sack Rate).

Now take that abysmal unit and remove the three best players and you have the 2014 version of Dallas's front. DeMarcus Ware—no longer an All-Pro player, yet still effective when he wasn't dealing with injuries—is off to Denver. Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher is in Washington. And Sean Lee—the best player on that defense and it's not even close—is out for the season with a torn ACL.

A healthy Henry Melton, added via free agency this offseason, might even be an upgrade over Hatcher but the rest of the front is in bad shape. Defenses as poor as the Cowboys were last season don't often remain that bad for long. People get fired (which Dallas did with Monte Kiffin), the team uses available resources to bring in new players via free agency and the draft and you end up with a unit that is at least a little better the following season. And while the Cowboys selected defensive players with two of their first three picks in the draft, they were too cap-strung to bring in anyone of significance outside of Melton.

Tony Romo's under-appreciated skills, a trio of very talented skill position players in Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and DeMarco Murray and one of the very best offensive lines in the league (not a typo) will keep this team competitive. But barring new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli orchestrating a miraculous turnaround with the talent-depleted bunch on the other side, the only football Dallas will be playing in January will be on their Xbox.

Chicago Bears

2013 Record: 8-8
Pythagorean Wins: 7.3 (overperformed by 0.7 wins, eighth-luckiest)
Record in Close Games: 6-4 (.600, tied for 10th-best)
Strength of Schedule: negative-3.7 percent DVOA (sixth-easiest)
Turnover Margin: plus-5 (10th-best)

It's incredible how quickly the identity of an NFL team can change these days. In 2013, we saw the Bears transform from the defense-first team we've known them as for most of the franchise's history to a team powered by a high-octane passing offense.

Under the guidance of new head coach Marc Trestman, the Bears finished in the top ten in offensive DVOA (6th) for the first time since 1995. In fact, you have to go back to 2001 to find a season in which Chicago even cracked the top 20. With the likes of Jim Miller, Chad Hutchinson and Rex Grossman taking snaps, offensive ineptitude was the norm in the Windy City. Now, led by a top-heavy set of skill position players who are as talented of a group as Chicago has had in decades to go along with a rapidly improving offensive line, it's offense is how they will win games for the foreseeable future.

On defense, Chicago plummeted from the league's best defense by DVOA in 2012 to the 25th in 2013. It was only the second time the Bears have finished outside the top ten in nearly a decade. That 24-spot drop in the rankings was the NFL's steepest decline last season. Much like the Cowboys, the majority of the blame falls at the feet of the front seven. Chicago finished dead last in run defense DVOA and ALY while allowing opponents to convert 77 percent of the time in power situations, the second worst rate in the NFL. The pass rush also suffered, recording a league-low 31 sacks with an ASR in the bottom third of the league. Unlike the Cowboys, however, the Bears completely rebuilt their defensive line to try and ensure they won't be as terrible in 2014.

Gone are the likes of defensive lineman Julius Peppers, Henry Melton (who spent the majority of last season hurt) and Corey Wooten. In their place Chicago added two high-profile defensive ends in Jared Allen from Minnesota and Lamarr Houston from Oakland along with depth players Willie Young and Israel Idonije. On the interior the Bears re-signed veteran defensive tackle Jay Ratliff, who was decent in late-season action for the Bears last season, and drafted Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton with two of their first three selections in May's draft.

These additions will allow Shea McClellin to bump back to linebacker where he should be a much better fit alongside Lance Briggs and D.J. Williams. In the secondary, safety is still a big concern. But if Chicago can manage to get another quality season from aging cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings and rookie first-round pick Kyle Fuller can be effective in the slot, the secondary should be adequate.

Change doesn't necessarily equal improvement, but it's difficult to envision the Bears being that bad on defense again this year. That sort of drastic decline combined with the resources invested on that side of the ball screams regression, even if it's only back up to the middle of the pack. Though Aaron Rodgers will always have the Packers in the mix, if the Bears can manage even modest improvement on defense they should find themselves back in the postseason for the first time since 2010.

Arizona Cardinals

2013 Record: 10-6
Pythagorean Wins: 9.5 (overperformed by 0.5 wins)
Record in Close Games: 5-3 (.625, tied for seventh-best)
Strength of Schedule: 5.9 percent DVOA (fourth-hardest)
Turnover Margin: minus-1

Life in the NFL can be flat out cruel at times. Just ask the Arizona Cardinals. New head coach Bruce Arians led the Cardinals to 10 wins last season. They did it with the league's 10th best point differential. They did it with the second-best defense in the NFL. They did it without the benefit of turnover luck or an unusually high winning percentage in close games. And they did it against the league's fourth-toughest schedule in the NFL's toughest division. Yet, come January the Cardinals were on the outside looking in. If you're a Cardinals fan, that's a difficult pill to swallow.

Which begs the question: if you have a season as good as the one Arizona just had and still fell well short in your own division, is there anything you can reasonably do to change your fate? Unfortunately for the Cardinals, that answer appears to be "no."

On defense—Arizona's strength a season ago—the Cardinals should remain very good but it's unlikely they will reach the level they played at last season. Arizona's do-everything inside linebacker Daryl Washington has been suspended for the entire season and his running mate Karlos Dansby is gone to Cleveland. Much like the 49ers rely on Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman to do many things for their defense, the Cardinals ask a good deal of the same from Washington and Dansby. Their absence leaves the situation at linebacker in a bit of disarray.

In the secondary, the additions of Antonio Cromartie via free agency and Deone Bucannon with their first selection in the draft should improve an already very good secondary. But will the improvements on the back end be enough to offset the loss of Washington and Dansby? I'm inclined to think no.

There's also the issue of age. According to Football Outsiders' snap-weighted age the Cardinals were the oldest team in football with the second-oldest defense in 2013. Within the front seven, Darnell Docket, John Abraham and Larry Foote are all at least 33 years old and only second-year player Kevin Minter is under 27. If age combined with the loss of Washington and Dansby cause Arizona's defense to regress towards the middle of the pack, will their offense be enough to keep them afloat? Again, I would answer that question with a "no."

On the positive side, after years of sending out one of the worst offensive lines in football, the Cardinals should be much improved up front. Jared Veldheer comes over from Oakland, giving the team a significant upgrade at the all-important left tackle position while allowing last year's starter, Bradley Sowell, to slide over to the right side where he'll compete with Bobby Massie. Arizona will also get to insert last year's first-round pick Jonathan Cooper in at left guard. If Cooper, who missed all of last season with an injury, lives up to his pre-draft billing, he and Veldheer could form one of the better left sides in football.

Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they may have fixed their offensive line too late. Carson Palmer will turn 35 by season's end and has long passed the point where his terrible games outnumber his competent ones. With Drew Stanton, Ryan Lindley and rookie project Logan Thomas filling out the depth chart, there will be no better options to turn to when the wheels inevitably fall off the Palmer wagon.

Ultimately, a probable slip on defense combined with one of the worst quarterback situations in football means that Arizona will likely be looking up at the rest of the NFC West in the standings when we close the book on the 2014 regular season.

Note: All of the statistics found in this article are courtesy of Football Outsiders' premium database and Pro Football Reference unless otherwise stated.