A much maligned offseason finally comes to a close and not soon enough. Now, it's back to football for a San Francisco 49ers team that faces the most amount of uncertainty and scrutiny it ever has in the Jim Harbaugh era. Victory is a great cologne in the NFL and San Francisco enters this game looking to douse themselves in it. With that said, here are five areas to pay specific attention to tomorrow afternoon in Big D.
1. Offensive line
The play of this unit is a focal point of the game. It's unknown what role right guard Alex Boone will have after missing the entire preseason, so there's at least some possibility the 49ers opt to go with Joe Looney who's been holding down the position in Boone's absence during the preseason.
What we do know is that Jonathan Martin will be starting at right tackle in place of Anthony Davis, Daniel Kilgore will get his first career start at center, and Mike Iupati will try to bounce back from a dreadful preseason performance against San Diego that almost got Colin Kaepernick killed. This position group, along with the secondary, has experienced the most drastic turnover during the offseason. They must learn to jell together quickly or it will be a long day for the offense. Luckily, the Dallas Cowboys front seven leaves much to be desired which is a huge boon for the Niners during this time of transition.
2. Dez Bryant vs Chris Culliver
Bryant is one of the most electrifying receivers in the game. He's strong, fast, and can elevate almost super-naturally to go up and haul in a pass. Chris Culliver appears primed to match up against him the most during Sunday's contest. Due to a season-ending injury in the 2013 offseason, Culliver has not played in a game since the Super Bowl, and that performance was forgettable at best. Not only is he over a year removed from his last start, he also popped up on the injury report this week with a sprained ankle, not the most ideal injury to battle through in a matchup against one of the league's best in Bryant. This is a huge challenge for Culliver and how he fares against Bryant will greatly impact on the outcome of the game. If he struggles early, San Francisco may line up Tramaine Brock opposite Bryant but with Dez standing about 4 inches taller and 30 pounds heavier than Brock, that's not the most ideal matchup either.
3. Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde
Gore enters his 10th year in the league, 33 yards shy of becoming the 29th player in NFL history to eclipse 10,000 career rushing yards. The venerable franchise-leading rusher will once again be out to prove the doubters wrong and show why he can still be one of the league's best at age 31. Gore could feast on a weak Dallas front seven but that will all hinge on how the offensive line does up front as speed has never been Gore's strong suit. At any rate, this game represents what is likely Gore's last season opener in red and gold. Fans should take the opportunity to relish watching one of the 49ers' all-time greats and appreciate just how integral he's been to to the team's success.
Right behind Gore is second round rookie Carlos Hyde, generally considered the best running back prospect of the 2014 draft. Hyde turned in a very solid preseason performance, garnering the praise of head coach Jim Harbaugh. The 49ers have been reluctant to chip into Gore's playing time with other runners in years prior but Hyde's upside and the desire to keep Gore fresh for later in the season could finally mean more playing time for running backs not wearing number 21. Blocking ability is a fixture for the 49ers at the running back position and the glowing reports Hyde received in that category may mean we see him on the field a decent amount in Dallas. If the line can do their part, this one-two punch could prove formidable on Sunday.
4. Michael Crabtree
Tomorrow's game is a big homecoming for this Texas native. After completing an impressive offeseason in which he looked stronger and faster than ever, Crabtree has been battling a calf issue as of late and appears on the injury report as questionable. The veteran receiver has indicated that he will definitely be in the lineup on Sunday but we'll have to see how the calf impacts his performance. If it's a minor or inconsequential hindrance, look for Crabtree to attack a very vulnerable Dallas secondary early and often. Cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne were downright awful last season, so expect the 49ers to take advantage of the mismatch. With friends and family in attendance and Crabtree in a contract year, no. 15 will look to start out the season hot and prove to the 49ers and the rest of the league why he's worth big money.
5. Defensive line
As it stands right now, the 49ers will field Justin Smith, Ian Williams, and Ray McDonald along the line in three-man fronts. Grizzled veteran Justin Smith received shoulder surgery in the offseason to correct an issue that nagged him throughout his 2013 campaign. He claims to feel much better heading into this season so it will be interesting to see if he bounces back from a quiet year. Ian Williams is coming off of a couple ankle surgeries in 2013 after missing virtually the entire season due to injury. Ray McDonald, meanwhile, is currently being investigated in a domestic violence dispute stemming from last weekend. 49ers brass has decided to let the legal process play out before making any decisions and I can't fault them for that at all; innocent until proven guilty. The bigger question is what kind of mental state McDonald will be in for this game after a tumultuous week?
This unit will go up against a very strong Cowboys offensive line. It's vital that the Niners get push up front to keep Willis roaming free in the middle and to allow Corey Lemonier and Ahmad Brooks to rush Tony Romo on passing downs. It becomes all the more important when you consider the question marks surrounding the 49ers overhauled secondary. If they give Romo too much time, he could have a field day. Additionally, keep an eye on how much the 49ers work second-year player Tank Carradine into the mix. Widely considered a first round selection pre-injury, Carradine's draft stock dropped into the 2nd round of 2013 due to a torn ACL. With a full season of recovery and an imposing preseason under his belt, Carradine looks primed to make some noise this season.