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I waited until a week after the 49ers surprisingly complete victory over the Rams to write this. You see, like many fans, I was so happy to see a double digit win that I lost focus on reality...albeit very briefly. Had the 49ers finally become the team I had been hoping for? Were they ready to make winning a regular thing? Like many of you reading this, I was ready to believe it. I almost caught myself thinking the 49ers were going to leave Dallas with a "W". Almost.
In the tailgate before the 49ers last home game against the Rams, a fellow fan asked what I expected to happen over the course of the game. I replied, "I expect the 49ers to go big early, and dominate the Rams...right up until our defense takes a nap, and Mike Martz finds a way to p*ss me off." I never in a million years expected my prediction to come true, but after the game, I was left with a very uneasy feeling about our pending road game. Strong starts and slow finishes are the hallmark of poor halftime adjustments. And so, I left the parking lot uneasy and disappointed at the 49ers sluggish and sloppy second half.
I thought for sure that the 49ers' coaches would be able to scheme for a talented but incomplete Cowboys team, and I was right. The 49ers initial game plan was right on the money. By daring Tony Romo to beat them, they were relying on rust and relative inconsistency to play right into their hands...and for 15 minutes, it did. The Cowboys were beaten of the ball for the entire 1st quarter, and it looked like Romo's ability to get rid of the ball had regressed slightly since his team's victory over the Redskins a week earlier. Then it came time for the first round of in-game adjustments...and the first round of in-game disappointment.
To his credit, Greg Manusky decided to get aggressive, and dialed up some relatively effective blitzes, one of which came within an inch of sacking Tony Romo before he threw the Cowboys' first score of the game. Unfortunately for Manusky, sending the strong safety on a blitz only pays off if the free safety is comfortable with over the top responsibility on the deep man. In this case, the deep man was Terrell Owens, and Mark Roman was a step slow out of his break, and had no chance to aid Nate Clements deep. So, while Manusky's aggressiveness was nice to see, his inability to hide Mark Roman in coverage left the Niners exposed deep all day long, and Dallas OC Jason Garrett took full advantage.
After another hyper-aggressive start by OC Mike Martz, 49ers fans were treated to more of the same conservative red zone calls that they've been screaming about all season long. Pass, run, pass, field goal. Ugh. What might have been a 17-0 run by the 49ers' offense became a tenuous 6-0 lead that was more disappointing than promising. For yet another week, Martz abandoned the run, neglected the play action against a defense that was stacking to 8 in the box, and stopped calling Vernon Davis' number after a spectacular deep grab early in the game. At the end of the day, the blocking was atrocious, consistent short and intermediate routes seemed few and far between, and the running game was as unimaginative as it has been all season.
Though both the offense and defense missed some very real opportunities to adjust to the changes Dallas made throughout the game, one thing was made clear by the time the final gun sounded: the 49ers are short on talent at key positions, and no amount of adjusting, scheming, or lineup shifting is going to fix that. While neither Nate Clements nor Walt Harris was stellar yesterday, both were relying on help over the top from a safety tandem that is a huge liability in coverage. Ever catch yourself asking, "Gee...I wonder why the corner is 8 yards off the receiver?" Well, now you know. The corners have to do that in order to prevent what we saw yesterday. Since it is unlikely that the 49ers will magically discover 2 new starters at free and strong safety this season, fans had better get used to soft coverage for the remainder of the year, and look for the team to address its secondary in the off season.
The defensive line was equally disappointing. While Justin Smith and Ray McDonald seemed to make plays all over the field, Isaac Sopoaga, Aubrayo Franklin, and Ron Fields proved yet again that they are not good enough to be starters in a 3-4 defense. A very mediocre Cowboys offensive line pushed the 49ers around from the start of the second quarter through the end of the game. When the team went with four down linemen in its nickel and dime sets, there were brief glimpses of pressure on Romo, but nothing close to a consistent pass rush. Look for this trend to continue into next week's contest in Buffalo.
The unit that deserves the most criticism, however, is the offensive line. Dallas NTs Jay Ratliff and Tank Johnson abused Eric Heitmann all day, and newly appointed Right Tackle Adam Snyder looked more like a revolving door than an offensive lineman. All told, the unit failed to open up lanes for Frank Gore, could not effectively pick up the blitz, could not create a pocket or passing lanes for beleaguered QB Shaun Hill, and was beaten off the ball for most of the game.
Whether or not Mike Singletary can get it done as head coach remains to be seen...but the question of the talent level of this roster has already been answered. The 49ers are an under talented squad, running offensive and defensive systems ill-suited to their personnel. Whether the 49er Faithful are ready to admit it or not, this team is good for one or two more wins this season, at best. Unless they can find a way to shore up the holes on their offensive and defensive lines, and in the secondary, 49er fans should get used to the kind of performance they saw Sunday in Dallas...because that is exactly what this team is capable of doing on the road against an upper tier NFL team.