The defense looked dominant. Special teams were inspiring. The offense showed the ability to grind field and eat clock, while transitioning to a rushing attack that appears to be dominated by zone running. The 49ers put together the type of game they needed to, in order to quiet outside concerns and build momentum toward the regular season. And the field didn't even eat anyone.
By shuffling the depth chart at corner and inserting NaVorro Bowman and Aaron Lynch into the starting lineup, the 49ers defense quickly erased memories of a tentative unit that could not get off of the field on third down last week. Bowman was credited with three tackles on the opening three-and-out (he stole one from Lynch, who actually finished off a running back after a blitzing Bowman forced the back to alter his course). Nick Moody was playing faster and with better confidence. Quentin Dial looked as large and easy to move as a mountain. Coverage was generally disciplined and aggressive.
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Special teams were strong in all aspects. 49er fans must have long memories to remember a time when the moments leading up to a punt return were more exciting than nerve-wracking. The Cowboys players were more worried than 49ers fans on Sunday. When the Cowboys were actually able to return a kickoff (Bradley Pinion was collecting touchbacks like Jarryd Hayne was collecting return yards), the coverage was smothering. To top it off, the 49ers made all of their field goals and blocked a punt for a TD.
The offense wasn't perfect, but it very nearly produced a touchdown on an impressive opening drive. A team that had built it's foundation on running Power left and Power right was moving the ball at will with inside zones and zone reads. Of the fifteen plays run by the starting offense, the 49ers ran the ball nine times. All nine of those runs were zone plays. There are still some kinks to work out with the zone blocking (who to combo with, when to leave the combo to block a LB), but the holes were there and the yards were gained. In fact, the 49ers would likely have scored a TD on the 1st-and-goal run during the impressive initial offensive series of the game, if Mike Davis had the vision to cut the run back one additional gap to his left (he ran-actually jumped-into a mess inside, while Vernon Davis had secured the edge for a big run). I believe Kendall Hunter has historically shown the vision and agility to make that cut, and Carlos Hyde clearly demonstrated that ability and patience today. Oh, and Reggie Bush is on this team.
The passing offense looks concerning, but the pieces appear to be there. The pass protection held up whenever the communication was right. On the three plays where Colin Kaepernick was pressured or hit, the error appeared to be in communication, rather than scheme, technique, or talent. We'll look at each of those pass plays quickly.
On the fourth play of the first offensive drive, Marcus Martin appeared to be stuck in no man's land. He initially stepped left to help Joe Looney with the defensive tackle, but Erik Pears immediately set so far to the outside that it appeared he clearly expected help to the inside. Pears' DE reacted immediately to the gap that opened between Martin and Pears and adjusted his pass rush to the inside, which put Pears at a dramatic disadvantage. Martin saw Pears getting beat and stepped back out to the right to help, but he was too late and Kaepernick was flushed from the pocket. It is hard to know whether Pears or Martin was wrong without knowing what line call was made, but I tend to assume that the more veteran player knows his assignment, and Looney had the DT handled from the snap of the ball.
On the tenth play of the first offensive drive, the Cowboys defensive coordinator fooled the 49ers line call. The 49ers were in a 5 man protection. The Dallas defense showed blitz, and they did blitz. The trick is that they showed pressure from four players on the right side of the offensive line before the snap, but they only brought two rushers from the right and sent three from the left. The initial look caused the 49ers to slide their protection to the right, leaving two blockers to the left side. With two blockers set against three pass rushers, the LDE came free, hurrying Kaepernick's throw.
On the second play of the second drive, Joe Looney appeared not to recognize a three man stunt by the Cowboys defensive line, in which the DT and DE on the right of the offensive line both slanted left, and the DT to the left of the offensive line looped over the top of both of them to assume the contain rush responsibility. Martin or Pears could have communicated that their assigned defensive lineman was slanting, or Boone or Looney could have recognized or communicated that their defensive end was looping away, but no adjustment was made. Martin should have passed his DT to Looney, Pears should have passed his DE to Martin, and Pears should have caught the looping DT after he cleared the two slanting DL. Instead, Looney stepped left, opening a gap for the slanting DT to rush into. Martin was forced to stay with him, because the inside rusher is always the most dangerous and disruptive. Pears was forced to stay with his DE for the same reason, as Martin was unable to assist Pears from the inside. As a result, all three DL penetrated the pocket and Kaepernick was sacked for a big loss, killing the drive.
While 49ers fans would no doubt prefer that there were no protection issues to clean up, exiting the second preseason game with the starting line surrendering their only three pressures to correctable and coachable errors rather than a dearth of talent or desire should be a welcome change from years past. Erik Pears looks like a starting right tackle, which must be a relief to 49er fans whose curiosity could not have been sated by Pears five meager plays last week.
Last week, the offense looked overmatched and the defense looked average. This week, the 49ers controlled the game while dominating the line of scrimmage against a good Dallas team that emphasizes dominant line play. NaVorro Bowman returned to solidify the interior of the defense, and Aaron Lynch bolstered the pass rush while setting the edge. The offensive line began to gel, and Jarryd Hayne electrified the stadium in the return game.
Things are looking up in San Francisco.