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Cowboys’ reunion of two linebackers will be key to victory over 49ers

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If the Cowboys are going to beat this winless team, they must contain the 49ers’ rushing attack.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys, fresh off a bye week, will get a chance to prove that they are better than their 2-3 record would indicate. The San Francisco 49ers are winless on the season but have lost their last five games by a combined 13 points. They may not one of the best rosters in the NFL but you have to give them credit for being a competitive bunch. As Mickey Spagnola would say the more you lose, the closer you are to winning. The 49ers are going to mess around and win one of these games fairly soon, the Cowboys just have to make sure it’s not this week.

There’s really only one true key to the Cowboys leaving Santa Clara 3-3 and that’s stifling the 49ers rushing attack. If they can do that then just about everything else will fall into place. There’s just one problem, after not surrendering one 100-yard rusher last season, Dallas has already given up three 100-yard performances in five games.

The Denver game was just bad all around but without Sean Lee the past two weeks, the Cowboys allowed the Rams and Packers to run wild. Those two teams rushed 56 times for 328 yards and almost six-yards per rush. To say they have missed Sean Lee is an understatement but they’ve really just missed the right combination of linebackers. This week, they will have their two preferred starting linebackers in Anthony Hitchens and Lee on the field for the first time this season. Jaylon Smith has racked up a ton of tackles but he’s not quite ready for the full load at middle linebacker.

Lee and Hitchens were instrumental in Dallas’ top-rated run defense of last season. Without them, it’s been as if the whole defense falls short. They haven’t been able to set the edge or mind their gaps, which has caused major leakage. Todd Gurley is a top-end talent but there is no reason the Cowboys should let rookie Aaron Jones get 125 rushing yards on 19 attempts.

For this Cowboys team to have a shot at redeeming their early struggles, the run defense must improve quickly. They have to contain running attacks because that will help disguise deficiencies elsewhere. It’s the formula they used last season too and it worked. They stopped the run and limited scoring, two things they have struggled doing this year. They are allowing touchdowns at a rate of 55.6% in the redzone, and it’s even worse on the road at 62%.

They’ve got some things to fix but having their two best linebackers together can most definitely change their defense significantly.

Offensively, the 49ers are going to run the football with Carlos Hyde because they have to. With the rookie C.J. Beathard now starting, it’ll be important to make the 49ers offense as one-dimensional as possible. Hyde is a good football player and he’s better than two of the three backs this defense gifted 100-yard performances to. San Fran is averaging about 95 rushing yards per game which ranks 23rd in the league. Still, they have five rushing touchdowns on the year, four runs of 20+ yards or more, have averaged 4.2 yards per carry, and have 30 rushing first downs.

Dallas is the 22nd ranked run defense allowing 118 yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry. If they can’t close some running lanes and take care of Hyde, this game could be ugly for them. That’s why it can’t be overstated how much help Lee and Hitchens will provide. Just two weeks ago, Sean Lee was PFF’s best linebacker in run-stop percentage:

The 49ers have been a struggling offense in every category: 23rd in rushing, 20th in passing, 20th in total yards, and 25th in scoring (18.8 PPG). With the Cowboys’ offense suddenly clicking before the bye, it’s clear that if the defense can thwart the 49ers from running the ball, they shouldn’t be able to hang in this one for long with Dallas.

Especially seeing as the Cowboys are ninth in points (25 PPG), ninth in yards, 13th in passing, and eighth in rushing. The 49ers have a decent front-seven with guys like DeForest Buckner playing well. After that, other than a few known names, they’re not exactly excelling at any one defensive category.

Driving the point home one final time, an improved run-defense will do wonders for this team moving forward through the season. It’s the one area where the additions of just two guys will undoubtedly bring significant improvement in the coming weeks. For this week, against an unknown rookie quarterback, it’s important to make them one-dimensional by keeping them behind the chains. No run game for San Francisco will only play into the hands of a Top-10 Cowboys’ defense in sacks, led by the NFL’s leading sack artist, Demarcus Lawrence. Tighten up the run defense and you can bet that the Cowboys get back on track in a big way.