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?