SANTA CLARA -- The 49ers allowed DeMarco Murray to run for 118 yards on Sunday, uncharacteristic of a defense knows for stuffing opposing running backs.
Well, there certainly were a few individual lapses. Dan Skuta allowed Murray to get around the edge on one play; Tony Jerod-Eddie was knocked backward on another. Michael Wilhoite played well but is no NaVorro Bowman. But the over-arching reason is that the Cowboys, perhaps trying to protect rickety quarterback Tony Romo, were dedicated to the run for the first three quarters.
They ran the ball in multiple-receiver formations when the 49ers were in their nickel defense. They ran the ball steadily after falling behind 21-3. And they even ran the ball after the 49ers lost both of their starting cornerbacks early in the game. The Cowboys have three first-round picks on the offensive line and a very good runner in Murray. They simply were focused and effective running the ball, and probably should have stuck with it at the goal line.
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That's been a major reason why the 49ers have held so many runners to under 100 yards in previous years: The opposing offense either has given up on the run early or has never gone into games intending to run.
I thought of all of Aldon Smith's substitutes, Skuta had easily the best game – as a pass rusher, against the run and in coverage. Of course, he was the one who pulled the ball free on Chris Culliver's fumble return for a touchdown. Wilhoite and Justin Smith also were in on the tackle, and if this were hockey they'd get assists on the score. (Skuta first assist, Wilhoite second, Smith third).
Smith, who was dealing with a shoulder injury last season, looked more like himself on Sunday. He leads the NFL in sacks – there's a six-way tie for first – with two after one week of play. Still, he played only 65 percent of the team's defensive snaps. The other starter, Ray McDonald, played 87 percent, which is approximately what Smith was playing in 2011 and 2012.
Sunday's game is probably what a typical “running” game for Colin Kaepernick will look like. He had three designed runs, two for first downs. When the 49ers were on the goal line in the second quarter, the threat of Kaepernick taking off to his left on the read option froze the Cowboys defensive end and allowed Carlos Hyde to score an easy touchdown. Which is to say, the 49ers likely will call running plays for Kaepernick from time to time to keep defenses off balance, but it won't be a major component until the playoffs.
Hyde (7.1 yards a carry) definitely is quick and explosive, which is in contrast to 31-year-old Frank Gore (3.9 yards a carry). But it's still hard to see Hyde taking over this year unless there is an injury to Gore. Right now Hyde is the perfect complement, and Gore still does the “little” things exceedingly well. That includes blitz pickup. Gore had an excellent block on Kaepernick's first touchdown to Vernon Davis that bought the quarterback the time he needed to make the throw.
How important is not-signed-beyond-this-season Mike Iupati to the 49ers? When the team was salting away the game on the final drive, it ran the same power-running play where Iupati pulls to his right three straight times. Gore and the 49ers had three straight positive plays and a first down despite the fact that the Cowboys – and everyone in the stadium – knew what was coming.
There was nothing wrong with Kyle Nelson's snap or Andy Lee's hold on Phil Dawson's 37-yard miss. Dawson just shanked it to the left.
I thought Joe Looney and Jonathan Martin had nice games. Looney was called for a hold that negated a nice pickup by Gore. I thought that – and the offensive pass interference call on Brandon Lloyd – were weak.