The San Francisco 49ers are back home in Week 4, facing the Dallas Cowboys. The rivalry is not anywhere near the level it was in the 90s, but a win over the Cowboys is still fun!
The Cowboys are dealing with several injuries, while also starting a rookie quarterback. We discussed all that plus the Cowboys defense in a Q&A with Blogging The Boys editor Dave Halprin. I answered his questions as well, and will have a link to that in a little bit.
Niners Nation: What do Cowboys fans think about Dak Prescott? I'm guessing a little bit excited, but are they ready for the Cowboys to move on from Tony Romo? How does this play out, particularly given the cap issues?
Blogging the Boys: Yes, Cowboys fans are very excited about the play of Dak Prescott. Given our woeful recent history with backup quarterbacks, having one that can actually win games in something new. But as your questions alludes to, he's not just winning games, he's playing like a quality starting quarterback, someone who certainly appears to have a future as the Cowboys permanent starting quarterback. Prescott doesn't play like a rookie, it's getting so overused now but the one word that always comes up to describe him is poise. He never looks rattled, never gets happy-feet in the pocket and is never too high or too low emotionally. He looks like a seasoned vet. He's also an accurate passer, makes good reads and can run the ball when needed. He's been fantastic so far.
How does this play with Tony Romo's return? That's a big question. A week or two ago, it was just assumed that Romo would get the starting spot back when healthy. The Cowboys as an organization are making it clear that is what they plan to do, but I get the feeling the fanbase is starting to divide into two camps. If Prescott keeps playing the way he has, and the Cowboys keep winning, it's going to be tricky to pull him. But a healthy Tony Romo is a better quarterback at this time, just look at how he dominated in the 2014 season. But for the first time since he solidified himself as the Cowboys starter, Romo will be on a medium-length leash. He has to perform or the Cowboys could turn back to Prescott. As for the salary cap question, it all depends on how Romo plays and his health. If he's healthy and plays like the Romo of 2014, the Cowboys will likely invest another year or two in him. But if there is any hint of decline or more health issues, the Cowboys will probably have to make the decision to eat some money and move on to Prescott.
NN: Dez Bryant is the big health question mark, but even if he does play, it seems like he'd be limited. What does this mean for the passing attack?
BTB: I feel pretty confident that Dez Bryant will not play in this game. It would be a huge surprise for the Cowboys to put him out there on Sunday, they need to be thinking long-term on this season and risking their best wide receiver and one of their best players just wouldn't be smart. How it will affect the passing attack is actually an interesting question. Prescott's favorite target is Cole Beasley, who leads the team in catches with 20 on 25 targets. Dez Bryant has received the second most targets at 23 but only has 11 catches. Bryant and Prescott do not have the same chemistry that Bryant and Romo have. Jason Witten has been targeted 21 times and has 14 catches. Prescott likes to work underneath more than Romo, not particularly Bryant's specialty. But how much have teams been shading safeties Bryant's way, thus opening things up for the other receivers? That's the thing Bryant brings to the table even when he's not catching passes. Certainly without Bryant I expect teams to push up on the underneath routes and force Prescott to make different reads.
NN: The defense remains rather maligned. What are the strengths and weaknesses on that side of the ball?
BTB: The Cowboys defense is a bend-don't-break defense. They will give up yards, but they tend to tighten up about giving up points. They rank 22nd in the league in yards surrendered, but are 10th in points allowed. The definition of bend-don't-break. They are not an attacking defense, they don't rely on blitzes and they are not going to throw a lot of exotic looks at you. They are a poor pass-rushing team, there are long periods of games when they don't even come close to the quarterback. But they are playing better in the secondary by not getting beat deep too often. Corner Morris Claiborne is reborn this season, and safety Byron Jones has helped solidify the back-end. Also, they still have Sean Lee at linebacker, and he is pretty darn good. The defense is a unit that lacks stars and lacks sizzle, but they are disciplined and make offenses really work for points. They believe if they force offenses to run a lot of plays on each drive, the offense will eventually make a mistake and either punt, kick a FG or turn the ball over.
NN: Who would be an under-the-radar player on each side of the ball?
BTB: On defense, nose tackle Terrell McClain has been a real positive so far. He's not a terror rushing the passer, but he is very effective at disrupting plays and penetrating into the backfield. He's not always the guy who makes the play, although he has done his fair share of that, but he causes chaos and allows other guys to clean it up. On offense, I'm not sure there is an under-the-radar guy. The Cowboys offensive line is pretty well-known, and they rely on their stars like Dez, Ezekiel Elliott, and Jason Witten to get things done. Now, Cole Beasley is a lesser-known guy who has really exploded so far this year. As noted above, he is Prescott's favorite target and is really tough to cover because of his quickness and he has superb hands.
NN: What do the Cowboys need to do to win this game? What would lead to a Cowboys loss?
BTB: The Cowboys need to run the ball effectively. They are a much better team when they can keep the ball on the ground and grind down the opposing defense. Once they establish the running game, teams are forced to load the box and this allows Prescott some easy reads in the passing game. Ezekiel Elliott has been getting more conformable with the offense and the NFL game each week, last week he looked very good. If he can have a good game, keeping the Cowboys ahead of the chains, the offense is very hard to stop. This also helps to control the clock and keep the Cowboys defense off the field, thus keeping their weakest unit on the sidelines as much as possible.
A Cowboys loss could come if they can't run the ball. Or if Prescott finally has a rookie game, a game where he finally throws some interceptions or is just generally off-target. The Cowboys basically win or lose based on how well their offense plays. If they are hitting on all cylinders they usually win, but if part of the machine breaks down on that side of the ball, the defense usually isn't good enough to overcome it.