SANTA CLARA — The 49ers could win. They’ll try to win. They’d sure like to win. But their opponent, the Cowboys, need to win. I’m picking the Cowboys.
The Cowboys are facing the same dilemma the Raiders faced Thursday night. Lose and the season is over. The Cowboys’ record is 2-3 — they can’t afford to fall behind the 5-1 Eagles.
The Cowboys have all the motivation they need, plus they’re rested. They’re coming off a bye week. The Niners are coming off a three-game road trip and they have nothing to play for. They’d take a win, but they’re not expecting one.
The rest of the Niners’ season is about evaluating young players. With that in mind, here’s what to look for during Sunday’s game.
1. How will the Cowboys attack C.J. Beathard?
Beathard played well against the Redskins last week, but they weren’t prepared to face him. They didn’t have a book on him. He entered the game in the second quarter, like a long reliever performing mop-up duty in baseball.
How will Beathard perform in his first game as a starter?
And how will the Cowboys defend him? They’ve watched his film from last week and identified his strengths and weaknesses.
Expect the Cowboys to blitz Beathard early, especially on third downs, to intimidate and rattle him. Expect the Cowboys to overwhelm him with blitzes he has never seen.
Some teams try to confuse young quarterbacks with tricky blitzes. For instance, they will show pressure on one side of the offensive line — a defender will walk to the line of scrimmage before the snap and lean forward as if he’s going to blitz. Then the young quarterback will redirect the pass protection assignments to pick up that blitzer. But when the center snaps the ball, that blitzer won’t blitz — he will drop back into coverage — and someone on the other side of the offensive line will blitz instead. This is one way the Cowboys could attack Beathard.
One thing the Cowboys won’t do. Some teams choose to play soft zone coverage against young quarterbacks, forcing them to lead long, mistake-free drives and make lots of difficult throws into small windows.
Don’t expect the Cowboys to use this strategy against Beathard. He wants to throw — center Daniel Kilgore calls him a gunslinger. Beathard trusts his arm. He will carve up the Cowboys defense if they defend him with vanilla coverages the entire game.
2. How will Kyle Shanahan protect Beathard?
If the Cowboys intend to blitz Beathard on third downs — and I expect they do — Shanahan will have to protect him.
I’m guessing Shanahan will call conservative plays on first down and second down to keep the third downs “manageable,” as coaches say. Third-and-5 or third-and-6. This will allow Beathard to throw short, quick passes when the Cowboys blitz on third down.
3. How will the 49ers divvy up playing time between Carlos Hyde and Matt Breida?
The Cowboys have one of the worst run defenses in the NFL — they’re allowing 4.6 yards per carry. Will the 49ers exploit this weakness and feed Carlos Hyde? Or, will they limit Hyde’s playing time and feature rookie Matt Breida so they can evaluate him for the future?
The 49ers already know what they have in Hyde. And he’s in a contract year. There’s a good chance he won’t be on the team next season. What’s the point of relying on him now when the 49ers are 0-6? Featuring Hyde and giving Breida only a few snaps per game won’t help the future of the franchise.
The Niners need to know how good Breida is, just as they need to know how good Beathard is. The team can’t decide what it needs for next season until these young guys show their capabilities.
4. How will Reuben Foster improve the 49ers defense?
The 49ers run defense is the fifth-best in the NFL, allowing an average of 3.4 yards per carry.
But, that stat might be a mirage. The 49ers run defense hasn’t faced many good running backs. When it faced LA Rams running back Todd Gurley, he gained 113 yards on four yards per carry and ran for two touchdowns.
This week, the 49ers will face another terrific running back — Ezekiel Elliot. He’s facing a six-game suspension for alleged domestic abuse, but a U.S. district judge issued a restraining order against the NFL on Tuesday, so Elliot can play at least two more weeks.
Last season, Elliot ran for 138 yards against the 49ers. But they didn’t have Reuben Foster. Shanahan said on Friday he’s “very optimistic” Foster will play Sunday (Foster has missed the past five games with a high ankle sprain). The 49ers hope Foster will shut down Elliot or at least contain him.
And they hope Foster helps the pass defense, especially on third down. The 49ers’ third-down defense is the second worst in the NFL, mostly because it can’t cover, tackle or rush the quarterback.
Foster doesn’t rush the quarterback, but he tackles and covers running backs and tight ends. It remains to be seen how much he will improve third-down defense and the defense in general.
5. How will the 49ers defend quarterback Dak Prescott as a runner?
If the 49ers find themselves in another close game during the fourth quarter, they’ll know how the Cowboys offense will attack them.
The Cowboys will use the zone read — either on a crucial third down or in the red zone. The Redskins used the zone read last Sunday on first-and-goal from the 49ers’ 7, and Kirk Cousins walked into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. The Cowboys have watched that tape.
The 49ers have struggled to defend the zone read all season. Most defensive coordinators coach a defensive end to read the play and tackle whoever keeps the ball — the running back or the quarterback.
But, 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has a different philosophy for defending the zone read. He instructs the defensive end to tackle the running back even if he doesn’t have the ball, and instructs a linebacker to contain the quarterback.
Unfortunately, 49ers linebacker Ray Ray Armstrong isn’t particularly disciplined or skilled. Against the Redskins, he allowed an offensive tackle to wall him out of the play during Cousins’ touchdown run. Teams have consistently beaten Armstrong with the zone read this season.
Will Armstrong learn from his mistakes, or will Saleh change his strategy? The answer to these questions could determine the outcome of the game.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.