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Predicting the Cowboys Wild Card matchup: The 49ers rushing attack is slightly overrated

Who will leave AT&T Stadium with their playoff hopes alive, and who will face a first-round exit?

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since 2018, the Dallas Cowboys are simultaneously four wins away from ending a 26-year championship drought and one loss away from the entire season falling apart. Playoff football has come to represent bitter disappointment for the Cowboys since the turn of the century, but that can all change this season.

Dallas will start by hosting the San Francisco 49ers in a game that does not project to be a cakewalk. According to DraftKings Sportsbook, with the Cowboys being a three-point favorite, it is the smallest spread of Wild Card Weekend. So, how does Dallas keep their Lombardi hopes alive on Sunday?

The Cowboys offense

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas truly lucked out by their Week 18 miracle that pushed them into the three seed. Not only is a higher seed always beneficial, but they avoided the Rams and Cardinals defenses. This is a gift for an offense that has been inconsistent at best.

Out of the seven NFC playoff teams, the 49ers have the fifth-best defense by EPA per play allowed, the fourth-best defense by DVOA, and they are fifth by the percentage of opponents’ drives that end in a touchdown. While we should not take the 49ers defense lightly, Dallas dodged a bullet with the three seed.

However, there will be no “establishing the run” in this game. The 49ers possess one of the best defensive lines in the NFL at stopping the run. The 4.0 yards per rushing attempt allowed by San Francisco is the seventh-best in the NFL, and over their last three games, they have allowed a league-low 3.1 yards per attempt on the ground. They are top three in nearly every meaningful rushing defense metric.

Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard should not expect a big day; the 49ers will shut the Cowboys rushing attack down.

What is even scarier is that, because of the dominance of the San Francisco defensive line, they also terrorize opposing quarterbacks. The 49ers are ranked fourth by PFF’s pass-rushing grade, and they are third in the league by passing attempts that result in a sack at 8.1%.

Now, the Dallas Cowboys have excelled in pass protection this year. Not only ranking third by PFF’s pass-blocking grade, but they have allowed the sixth-lowest percentage of passing attempts that end in a sack.

So, here is what we know. Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard shouldn’t expect to get anything going on the ground, the 49ers will put Dak under pressure, but the Cowboys’ offensive line should give him enough time to throw. And if Dak can throw, Dallas can beat San Francisco through the air.

Just look at the discrepancy of the 49ers’ defense by rushing versus pass rankings.

The 49ers Defensive Rankings

Metric/Outlet Rush Defense Ranking Pass Defense Ranking
Metric/Outlet Rush Defense Ranking Pass Defense Ranking
PFF 6 16
EPA per Play Allowed 2 23
DVOA 2 16
Yards per Attempt 7 11

The San Francisco 49ers are the New Orleans Saints with a consistent quarterback. They shut down the run and are highly efficient in the pass-rush, but if you can get the throw off, you found their weakness.

The game plan will be identical to the Buccaneers game. Don’t play into the 49ers’ strengths; run play-action early and pass on first and second down. The game will likely start with quick passes close to the line of scrimmage to avoid the San Francisco pass rush affecting the throw.

However, later in the game, the 49ers players will anticipate the quick throws and begin to press up, making Dallas beat them over the top. This is when the Cowboys pass protection needs to win at the line of scrimmage and give Dak Prescott enough time to air it out.

Because if one thing is certain, Dak will be fired up and ready to play.

The Cowboys defense

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Where did we get this crazy idea that the 49ers will be able to run all over us? We must disregard the previous Kyle Shanahan seasons; this team does not run the ball with incredible efficiency.

Let’s use the same metrics we did in the previous section and look at the 49ers offensive rankings by rushing success:

  • Yards per attempt: 16th
  • PFF: 19th
  • EPA per Play: 9th
  • DVOA: 5th

This is not an attempt to disparage the 49ers’ rushing attack; they are above average. But the notion that the Cowboys will not be able to stop San Francisco on the ground is entirely misguided.

Dallas has stopped more efficient rushing attacks before, namely the Eagles, Patriots, and Buccaneers, where they allowed an average of 96.3 yards per game to those teams. Ninety-six rushing yards allowed per game would be the fifth lowest in the NFL this season if you extrapolated across an entire year.

But, what the 49ers do incredibly well is use the run to set up the pass.

San Francisco’s 29.4 rushing attempts per game is the fifth-highest rate in the league, and their 8.6 yards per pass attempt is the second-highest in the NFL. What the 49ers do masterfully is running the ball continuously, albeit inefficiently, but they draw the defense closer and closer to the line of scrimmage. Right then, the 49ers will hit a deep ball over the top.

But here is the caveat; Jimmy Garoppolo is not an elite quarterback. While he has the second-best yards per attempt in the league, he has the seventh-lowest average depth of target and the second-highest turnover-worthy play rate.

While San Francisco can hit the big play once they draw the defense in, this is primarily due to their receivers creating yards after the catch. If it is not a completion to Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, or George Kittle, there is a solid chance the pass is going the opposite way.

The game plan for Dan Quinn becomes a little more complex. He will likely use Micah Parsons on the defensive line to stop the run and prevent the 49ers from moving down the field on the ground. Since the San Francisco rushing attack is nothing to be intimidated by, Dallas puts the ball in Garoppolo’s hands.

The secondary needs to avoid pressing up in order to stay back and prevent yards after the catch. With sound tackling and persistence, Garoppolo will make a mistake. From there, the Cowboys defense needs to do what they do best and capitalize.

Coaching and Special Teams

Atlanta Falcons v Cleveland Browns Photo by: 2016 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

The narratives of this game from a coaching standpoint are abundant. Mike McCarthy is facing a team that beat him in the playoffs in consecutive years during 2012 and 2013. Dan Quinn is coaching against Kyle Shanahan, his former offensive coordinator during the 28-3 Super Bowl. This is also Kellen Moore’s first playoff game as an offensive coordinator.

For Dan Quinn, there is no doubt he will be ready to play. On top of what he has done this season, Quinn has playoff experience and should know how to coach this game. This isn’t even to mention he is ready to run through a brick wall at all times.

For Kellen Moore, this is where the speculation ends. If he is genuinely saving his creativity for the playoffs as some have pointed out, then the offense should be just fine. If this is not the case, we have to hope the inexperience doesn’t present itself. Here’s an interesting idea, treat these the postseason opponents like NFC East teams.

And then there is arguably the most controversial figure of the Cowboys’ 2021 season, Mike McCarthy. The one thing that McCarthy can control early in the game is aggression. If the Cowboys are willing to be bold, go for it on fourth down, go for two, and burn timeouts to score again at the end of the half, the Cowboys should win this game.

Dallas is the better team, but if they play “not to lose,” it is a coinflip. Punch them in the mouth early, and don’t ease up on the aggression. McCarthy has been assertive all year, and we need it this Sunday.

The only factor left to consider is special teams. Greg Zuerlein has been in the news this week, as John Fassel expressed his unwavering support for the Dallas kicker, and he will remain employed throughout the postseason.

If this is the case, the Cowboys have to be wary of an early game miss in the form of a field goal or extra point. Considering the longest stretch that Zuerlein has gone without missing a kick is two games, we should not expect a potential four-game stretch of perfect kicks.

So, if missing a kick in the postseason is essentially guaranteed barring an early exit, the only hope that Cowboys fans have left is that Dallas gains a large enough lead where the kicking errors are irrelevant.

We know how the game will likely play out, given the strengths and weaknesses of these two teams. But what we don’t know is the outcome. While it is terrifying to consider a first-round exit, that is the beauty of sports.

But what would be even more beautiful is a Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl. It starts now, with a matchup against the 49ers, a rivalry entrenched in history. Let’s go Cowboys.

Analytics Projection:

Likelihood of the Cowboys winning: 66.1%

Final Score: Dallas Cowboys 34, San Francisco 49ers 23