Cowboys at 49ers: Matt Barrows' 5 players to watch
The Cowboys have a rookie quarterback in Dak Prescott, and their top wideout, Dez Bryant, is questionable with a hairline fracture in his right knee.
Which points to a Dallas offense that will rely heavily on its rushing attack on Sunday and, if recent history serves, a strong game from a 49ers defense that splinters on the road but has been sturdy at home.
Dating to the start of last season, San Francisco has given up just 15.3 points a game at Levi’s Stadium and more than double that – 33.5 points – as the visitor. The 49ers have been trampled on the road, allowing six running backs in 10 games to surpass 100 yards and giving up an average of 150 rushing yards.
At home, it’s more respectable. There’s been just one 100-yard rusher since last season – Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch – and opponents have averaged 93.2 yards on the ground.
To put those numbers in perspective: The 93.2-yard average would have ranked eighth-best in the NFL a year ago, the 150 yards a distant 32nd. (The 49ers finished 29th in that category in 2015.)
On Sunday, the 49ers know what to expect – a lot of Cowboys rookie runner Ezekiel Elliott.
“(Prescott’s) still a rookie quarterback, so the run game opens everything up for quarterbacks like him,” 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. “So I’m sure there will be an emphasis on trying to get the run game opened up so that Dak can be comfortable back there in the pocket.”
Dallas already has been leaning on Elliott and on one of the best – and biggest – offensive lines in the league. The Cowboys rank third in the NFL in rushing attempts and sixth in rushing yards this season. They have scored a league-best seven touchdowns on the ground.
Elliott, whom the Cowboys selected fourth overall in April, ranks thirdin the league with 274 rushing yards through three games.
The 49ers, meanwhile, are coming off two road losses in which they allowed 100 or more yards to a running back, Carolina’s Fozzy Whittaker (100 yards) and Seattle’s Christine Michael (106 yards).
But they limited Rams tailback Todd Gurley to 47 yards in Week 1. The 49ers’ run defense ranks 23rd in the league through three games.
Their own top running back, Carlos Hyde, at one point served as a mentor to Elliott at Ohio State and says Elliott is “like a little brother.” In 2013, Hyde’s last year with the Buckeyes, he had 208 carries for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns. Elliott was a freshman at the time and rushed 30 times for 262 yards.
“I knew there was going to be this day, and it’s coming up now,” Hyde said this week. “But I wasn’t really paying too much attention to it. I don’t have to play against Zeke. Bo does.”
Bo is Bowman, who suspected the game had a bit more importance to Hyde than the running back is letting on.
“Carlos had him underneath his wings at Ohio State,” he said. “You can’t let the young guy get the best (of you) in the game. I think Carlos will be holding this one special in his heart.”
Bowman called Elliott “a talented guy.”
“I feel like he’s on the verge of becoming a good back in this league, you know, if he can hold onto the ball,” he said.
Elliott has fumbled twice this season, losing one of them. Does Bowman see an opportunity for more?
“There’s always opportunities,” he said. “You’ve just got to do it at the right time.”