After a sluggish preseason that raised some worries among the 49er faithful, Harbaugh’s men came out swinging in their regular season opener in Dallas. Fueled by an impressive number of 49er fans in attendance, the 49errs jumped out to a 21 to 3 lead over their old NFC rivals only 10 minutes into the game.
The 49ers built their commanding lead by capitalizing on Dallas’ four first half turnovers. It started on the third play from scrimmage when Dan Skuta—who Harbaugh referred to as the Civil War Solider—stripped the DeMarco Murray and Chris Culliver returned the loose ball 35 yards for a defensive touchdown.
It was a dream start that sent the red parts of Jerry World into delirium. But the Cowboys quickly responded, driving down the field behind a slashing run game until a Justin Smith sack forced Dallas to settle for a short field goal. When the 49ers got the ball back Colin Kaepernick and Co. showed that all the worry over their preseason funk was unfounded.
Kaepernick dispelled those worries with a four play 80 yard drive that illustrated just how explosive this offense can be when things are clicking. The final play—an impressive 29 yard touchdown pass that beautifully exploited the Cowboys cover 3 defense—was certainly the high point of the night for the 49ers.
Let’s look at the All-22 tape to see exactly how the 49ers combined a flood principal with a double move to spring Vernon Davis wide open.
Game Situation: 1st Quarter, 6:03, 1st and 10 at the DAL 29, Cowboys 3, 49ers 7
Offensive Personnel: 2 WR (Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin) 1 TE (Vernon Davis) 2 RB (Frank Gore, Bruce Miller)
Formation: Pistol Strong
Offensive Concept: Out N Up/Flood
Defensive Scheme: Cover 3
In his comments the day after the win, Jim Harbaugh said there were only two quarterbacks that could make this play, Colin Kaepernick and the guy with the ‘S’ on his chest—and he didn’t mean Cam Newton. No doubt it was an incredible individual play from Kaepernick to escape the rush but the real beauty was in the play design.
It started when Dallas willingly showed their coverage pre snap with a single high safety and corners playing with outside leverage. Knowing it was Cover 3, Kaepernick got the 49ers into a zone buster—by either checking to it or rolling with a perfectly called original play—with a flood/double move combo. It started with Davis and Bruce Miller running what looked to be a classic flood combination—an out route above a flat route—meant to overwhelm the underneath outside defender. That gave the far side corner the belief that nothing was coming into his deep zone so he followed Crabtree inside on the post route, leaving the deep right part of the field vacant.
Once the corner committed to Crabtree’s post it was always going to be a touchdown as long as Kaepernick could deliver the ball—the free safety recognized the danger but was too far inside to affect the play. It wasn’t easy as Kaepernick had to escape some early blind side pressure—Staley was quickly beaten by Jeremy Mincey—but he stepped through a tackle attempt and ripped the ball towards the pylon. All that was needed to complete the play was a simple catch that Davis almost botched but managed to wrangle.
It was a beautiful play that was executed perfectly outside of Joe Staley’s block. For a 49ers offense that was down right horrible in the preseason it was a comforting first drive that is hopefully a sign of things to come.
Just three plays after the 49era doubled their early lead, Tony Romo struck. By struck I mean Tony Romo did what he does best, throw terrible interceptions.
Despite Romo’s up and down record there seemed to be a small section of NFL media that believed that all of Romo’s good was being overlooked for a few poor decisions. Pundits like Ron Jaworski, Trent Dilfer and other former quarterbacks were quick to mention that Romo was a top 10 quarterback in the NFL and that fans overlooked his borderline elite play because of a few untimely interceptions.
I think that bandwagon may have cleared out yesterday. I know it was only one game but Romo was terrible from start to finish and gave numerous examples of why Dallas will always be vulnerable with him under center. He wasn’t seeing the field well at all, he missed open receivers and was once again the main reason why his team lost.
Let’s look at the tape to examine Romo’s first interception where he completely overlooked the underneath defenders on a crossing route off play action.
Game Situation: 1st Quarter, 4:52, 1st and 10 at the DAL 31, Cowboys 3, 49ers 14
Offensive Personnel: 2 WR (Terrence Williams, Dez Bryant) 2 TE (Jason Witten, Gavin Escobar) 1 RB (DeMarco Murray)
Offensive Concept: Play Action Crossing Route
Defensive Scheme: Cover 3
As a 49er fan I loved this play—one safety got the pick while the other absolutely crushed the opposing team’s star receiver. That said I almost--almost but not really--feel bad for Dallas fans watching this. This is such a bad decision that it boggles the mind. There is an opening to Bryant—the play action created a gap between the zone as the Cowboys were gashing the 49ers on the ground—but Romo is a second late at least. Making matters worse was Romo’s second option was wide open—Williams nearly sent Cox to the ground with a nice corner post and Bethea was always cheating forwards—and a good throw would have likely resulted in a touchdown for Dallas. If you needed any proof that the NFL is a cruel game this interception provides it. Romo made a poor decision and instead of Dallas pulling within a score of the 49ers he set up the Kaepernick at the two yard line. The 49ers quickly converted the glorious opportunity on a Kaepernick to Davis play action and the 49er lead was up to 18 just ten minutes into the game. It was a brutal start that left the Dallas fans that didn’t sell their tickets likely wishing they had. Unfortunately for Cowboy fans, Romo was just getting started.
Despite having the odds stacked against them, Romo and the Cowboys offense wouldn’t quit. Following the 49ers conversion of Reid’s interception, the Cowboys marched 75 yards down the field and set up a first and goal at the five yard line. They were a single play away from making the game competitive again and despite gashing the 49ers on the ground new play caller Scott Linehan put the ball back in Romo’s hands. Some would say ‘He chose….poorly.’
In true Romo style, Tony extinguished any remaining hope for the Cowboys with an interception that was truly embarrassing—even for the master of terrible picks. Let’s look at the tape to examine how Romo overlooked a wide open receiver to throw into a swarm of 49er defenders.
Game Situation: 2nd Quarter, 13:10, 1st and 5 at the SF 5, Cowboys 3, 49ers 21
Offensive Personnel: 3 WR (Dez Bryant, Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley) 1 TE (Jason Witten) 1 RB (DeMarco Murray)
Formation: 3 Wide Ace
Offensive Concept: Play Action Slant
Defensive Scheme: Man 0
Watching this live I couldn’t believe Romo didn’t hit Harris in the end zone for an easy score. The play was perfectly set up as the play action sucked the underneath defenders out of position and Cox slipped leaving Harris unmarked 10 yards in front of Romo. But somehow Romo decided not to pull the trigger—how is still beyond me as Harris had to be Romo first read—and was forced out of the pocket by Aaron Lynch. Running from the massive 5th round pick, Romo made a decision that Geno Smith would shake his head at and floated the ball into the middle of the endzone. Predictably, Romo’s pass ended up in Patrick Willis’ hands—who had done well to flow down the goal line.
But Romo simply wouldn’t stop there, although Romo’s third and final interception wasn’t nearly as bad as his first two.It was more a result of a great play from Perish Cox who somewhat unexpectedly bailed out of his zone coverage to double Bryant on the deep post.
Let’s look at how Cox displayed textbook technique and impressive ball skills gave the 49ers their fourth takeaway of the first half.
Game Situation: 2nd Quarter, 3:50, 1st and 10 at the DAL 12, Cowboys 3, 49ers 28 Offensive Personnel: 1 WR (Dez Bryant) 3 TE (Jason Witten, Gavin Escobar, James Hanna) 1 RB (DeMarco Murray)
Formation: 3 TE Ace
Offensive Concept: Play Action Deep Post
Defensive Scheme: Cover 3
The play is more or less the same as the first interception and again Romo chooses the wrong option. However this time Rome opts to throw for the deep post when the crossing route or a check down would have been wiser as the 49ers had Bryant’s deep post sandwiched. The coverage was beautiful and a good example of how a Cover 3 defense can smother deep routes down the middle.
With no receiver on his side of the field, Cox is free to roam and he sees Bryant powering down the middle of the field at Reid. Cox wastes no time in helping his free safety in the deep middle and displays textbook technique by identifying the threat, getting to his body and then locating the ball. Better yet Cox finished the play with an impressive contested interception. It was a perfect example of why Fangio recently said Cox could even play some safety if need be.
What Did We Learn About the 49ers From Week 1?
I never thought I would get tired of talking about Tony Romo throwing interceptions. After writing this I have. So I will sum it up as simply as I can, Romo continually makes poor decisions with the football and it costs Dallas games. Period. End of story.
With that out of the way let’s turn our attention to the 49ers and what the 28 to 17 win told us about Harbaugh’s team. Unfortunately for the readers that have plugged through 1800 words and three Romo interceptions, the answer is not much. The game was so lobbed sided from such an early point the 49ers were very conservative on both sides of the ball.
On offense the 49ers dialed down their attack after their impressive first drive and seemed more focused on protecting their lead than anything else. The things that did stand out to me were Hyde’s explosiveness getting through the hole, the offensive line’s questionable play—at one point Kaepernick had been knocked down on 7 of 9 drop backs—and Kaepernick’s clutchness on third down—he was 7 of 9 for 88 yards on third down.
It was a solid but unspectacular performance for an offense that had some serious questions due to a lack luster preseason.Hopefully the return of Alex Boone and Anthony Davis will give the 49ers some stability upfront and help reestablish their physical run first style.
On defense the 49ers were conservative for more reason than just the score. Both starting corners, Tremaine Brock and Culliver, were knocked out of the game in the first quarter—although Brock returned for a few snaps late. Because of the make shift secondary the 49ers played a ton of simple zone coverage—like the Cover 3 on two of Romo’s picks—to prevent any big plays.
Other than that the defense played admirably without Aldon Smith and Navorro Bowman. The pass rush was clearly lacking but there were some bright spots in Aaron Lynch and a fresh looking Justin Smith. The worrying part was the run defense which I will hopefully look into later today.
Overall, Sunday’s beat down of the Cowboys was a strange game mainly because it was more or less decided in the first ten minutes. That led to some bittersweet feelings as the 49ers won handedly but never put the Cowboys away like an elite team should. While everyone in the 49ers organization would have loved a more complete victory, Frank Gore summed up the mood of the team in his post game press conference when he said "We got the win and that is what matters."