The Dallas Cowboys will host the San Francisco 49ers in Arlington for only the second time ever. The Niners first trip to AT&T was back in 2014 where Colin Kaepernick led his team to a 28-17 win in the season opener. While the Cowboys started that year 0-1, they proceeded to win their next six games on route to a 12-4 season that eventually ended with the Dez Bryant “no catch” game.
Strangely enough, that 49ers victory that season is the only time San Francisco has beaten the Cowboys over the last 17 years. That’s weird to think about considering these teams have had such a back-and-forth history, but Dallas has managed to win five of their last six meetings. Can they make it six of seven?
Expectations were high for both teams with San Francisco being the reigning NFC Champs and the Cowboys being the, well, the Cowboys. Unfortunately, injuries have floored both teams as they just struggle to survive the season. Here are five things to keep an eye out for on Sunday.
1. Getting sick of Nick
In what seems to be going around a lot this year, the 49ers are just one of many who are having quarterback issues. Jimmy Garoppolo was given a five-year, $137.5 million deal a couple years ago, but he’s missed the last five games with a high ankle sprain. Nick Mullins is handling the quarterback duties now, and it hasn’t gone well. Since taking over the starting gig, the undrafted backup has thrown a pick in every game and actually has more interceptions in that span than he does touchdowns. So, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that the 49ers have lost six of the last seven games he’s played in.
Is it possible that head coach Kyle Shanahan has had enough of Mullins? In addition to his turnovers, the backup has been off target, overthrowing his receivers. His receivers are doing him no favors by dropping passes, but if Mullins keeps playing like this, don’t be surprised if San Francisco turns to C.J. Beathard. Fans may remember Beathard from when he made his first career start against the Cowboys in Week 7 of 2017. In that game, he was sacked five times in a 40-10 Cowboys blowout.
2. Who is the least sloppy on Sunday?
And to be fair, it’s not just Mullins that’s giving the ball away. The 49ers have had multiple turnovers in each of their last seven games, and nine of their last ten. And they are averaging three giveaways a game over their last four weeks. You might remember the Cowboys offense had a horrid stretch earlier in the year where they averaged three giveaways over a five-game span.
The good news is the Cowboys have gotten better as they’ve only averaged one turnover over the last four games, including a clean game on Sunday against the Bengals. It ended a streak of 11-straight games with a giveaway. While the Cowboys are showing improvement, the 49ers have been super sloppy as of late. On Sunday against Washington, not only did they turn it over three times, but two of those resulted in defensive scores. The Cowboys defense is coming off it’s second defensive score of the year when Aldon Smith picked up a fumble and returned it 78 yards for a touchdown. This game will likely be decided by the team who offers up the least amount of self-destruction.
Speaking of Aldon Smith...
3. Revenge games for a couple of edge rushers
Aldon Smith spent four seasons with the 49ers where he racked up 44 total sacks. That includes an All-Pro season where he recorded 19.5 sacks in 2012. Smith moved across the bay to play for Oakland in 2015 where he had 3.5 sacks that season before missing the next four seasons due to suspensions. Smith returned to the NFL this year and has been playing well. He leads the Cowboys this season with 5.0 sacks.
The 49ers sack leader just so happens to be Kerry Hyder, who played for Dallas on a one-year deal last season. Hyder is a good player, but he didn’t get a lot of action with the Cowboys as the team got a lot of use out of Robert Quinn. Due to injuries to the 49ers defensive line, Hyder has seen plenty of action this year, trailing only Arik Armstead in snap counts for defensive linemen.
Don’t be surprised if these guys add to their sack total on Sunday.
Former 49ers edge rusher Aldon Smith currently leads the Dallas Cowboys in sacks.— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) December 17, 2020
Former Cowboys edge rusher Kerry Hyder currently leads the San Francisco 49ers in sacks. pic.twitter.com/IyxnxtM2f6
4. Grounding the Niners rushing attack
The 49ers were the second-best rushing team last season, trailing only the Baltimore Ravens who just so happen to have a quarterback that rushed for over 1,200 yards. The Niners rushing attack was a collective effort led by a three-headed monster in Raheem Mostert, Matt Brieda, and Tevin Coleman. All three of them rushed for over 500 yards last season.
San Francisco’s rushing attack isn’t as potent this year as they have fallen to 19th in the league in rushing yards. Again, the team has used a rotisserie of rushers with Mostert leading the way. Injuries regular surface as Jerick McKinnon and Jeff Wilson have been thrown into action as well.
There’s nothing like a game against the Cowboys 32nd ranked run defense to revive a team’s rushing attack. Whether it’s Mostert or Wilson, the Cowboys are likely to see a good dose of running by the 49ers.
5. Draft watch
Just like last week, this week’s Cowboys game features a matchup where two teams are real close to each other in draft position. Entering last week, the Bengals held the third spot, where Dallas held the fourth. With the Cowboys win, Cincy remained at three while Dallas only fell to five.
Only one game separates the Cowboys (4-9) and the 49ers (5-8). San Francisco is all the way down to spot no. 12 due to strength of schedule. There are currently three other teams (Panthers, Falcons, and Texans) who have a 4-9 record, and there are three other teams (Giants, Broncos, and Lions) who have a 5-8 record, while the Chargers are at 5-9. How this game turns out could have a huge impact in each of these team’s draft position come next April.