Their star inside linebacker has a torn ACL, another top player is suspended to start the year, and the defense is a towering question mark as the regular season gets under way Sunday.
Fans of the 49ers and Cowboys might sigh after reading that sentence.
That’s because both enter the Week 1 showdown in Dallas after a brutal offseason that was particularly rough on the teams’ defenses.
The 49ers will be without top tackler NaVorro Bowman, who is recovering from an ACL tear, and top pass rusher Aldon Smith, who is serving a nine-game suspension. Nose tackle Glenn Dorsey is sidelined with a biceps injury, and there’s a chance defensive end Ray McDonald, under investigation for felony domestic abuse, could miss the game, too.
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Those woes are unlikely to get much sympathy in Dallas.
The Cowboys lost their top tackler – Sean Lee, a teammate of Bowman’s at Penn State – to an ACL tear, and starting cornerback Orlando Scandrick was suspended four games for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Jason Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware, longtime stalwarts on the defensive line, were salary-cap casualties during the offseason and are playing elsewhere.
The Cowboys had the third-worst defense in NFL history in 2013 – allowing an average of 415.3 yards per game – and there is a concern in Dallas that, after losing so many key players, this year’s defense could be even worse.
Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin wondered this week if the team’s defense could be its worst since its inaugural season in 1960, a year in which the Cowboys didn’t even have the benefit of a draft.
“We don’t really concern ourselves very much with what a lot of people say and a lot of people are talking about,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said Wednesday. “We understand the kind of football team we have, how hard everyone has worked, the improvements that we’ve made, not only on defense but throughout our team.”
If the Cowboys have an advantage, it’s that they are far more accustomed to shootouts than the 49ers. Dallas finished fifth in scoring last season, and quarterback Tony Romo is used to putting the ball in the air.
Romo attempted 40 or more passes five times last season and threw 51 times against Minnesota. By contrast, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has never attempted 40 or more passes in a game.
“We have the ability to do that, but we have great defensive players still on that field,” Kaepernick said Wednesday. “I don’t think there will be a drop-off.”
Kaepernick has a deeper arsenal of pass catchers than any 49ers quarterback in more than a decade. Still, the 49ers haven’t given their shootout-style offense a test run. Instead, they’ve leaned heavily on their run game in recent years and have used three-receiver formations less often than any team.
They didn’t reveal much in the preseason, either, which also could be a challenge for the Cowboys.
“We just have to do our best to try to sort out what we think they’re going to do, and then adjust when the game starts,” Garrett said. “And that’s no different than any team when you’re playing the opening game. Rarely do teams show a whole lot during the preseason.”
Romo said he didn’t anticipate a decline from the 49ers. He was prescient in predicting the 49ers’ rise following a narrow Cowboys win in San Francisco in the second game of the 2011 season. And he said losing an individual player – or two or three or four – wouldn’t slow San Francisco’s defense.
“No one player makes that defense,” Romo said. “They’re a collection of outstanding individual talent with a very good scheme that can create issues. I expect them to (double-team receiver) Dez Bryant and come out there and do some things that give you trouble. We’re going to have to prepare for that and be ready.”