For the first time since the 2018 season, the Dallas Cowboys are in the playoffs! After a 51-26 win over the Eagles, as well as some fortunate results elsewhere around the league, the Cowboys moved up to the third seed in the NFC. That drew a matchup against the San Francisco 49ers in AT&T Stadium, rekindling a storied history of these two teams meeting in the postseason.
History aside, though, this 49ers team is very tough to get a read on. It wasn’t that long ago that they sat at 3-5 and the season looked to be over. Head coach Kyle Shanahan drew sharp criticism for sticking with the inconsistent Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback over playing rookie Trey Lance, the guy that San Francisco traded three first-round picks to select third overall this year.
Then, Shanahan’s team flipped a switch. They won seven of their final nine games, including two victories over the NFC West champion Rams and another win over the AFC North champion Bengals. That second win against the Rams featured the team coming back from a 17-0 deficit in the first half to win 27-24 in overtime, which not only clinched their playoff berth but also moved the Cowboys up a seed.
So how did San Francisco do it? Well, it wasn’t Garoppolo putting the team on his back. During their final nine games, Garoppolo threw 30 or more passes just four times and the 49ers were 2-2 in those games with Garoppolo throwing seven touchdowns to six interceptions and three fumbles.
The 49ers did it by going back to the thing that Shanahan offenses have done best: running the ball. There may not be a better run-game designer than Shanahan right now, which makes his offenses lethal when they get things going. It also helps lighten the load on Garoppolo, who rarely has to play hero ball. Among quarterbacks that started at least 14 games this year, Garoppolo had the fifth-fewest pass attempts while the team tied with the Colts for the fifth-most rushing attempts.
Sixth-round rookie running back Elijah Mitchelll has been a revelation this year, but San Francisco has a deep stable of running backs who fit perfectly into Shanahan’s diverse running schemes. Shanahan has also made great use of dynamic receiver Deebo Samuel, who’s actually second on the team in rushing yards. Samuel’s ability to wreak havoc as both a runner and catcher played a big part in this offense roaring back to life in the second half of the season.
That’s why the 49ers pose such a unique and specific problem for the Dallas defense. Dan Quinn reached the Super Bowl as a head coach with Shanahan as his offensive coordinator, so he knows this scheme well. But just like how Quinn has rejuvenated his own defensive scheme in Dallas, Shanahan has plenty of new wrinkles in San Francisco, and they pose a problem for Quinn’s group.
As great as this Cowboys defense has played this season, stopping the run has been their bugaboo. That’s become apparent in the last few weeks of the regular season, but it’s been a growing trend ever since they lost Brent Urban earlier in the year. Urban was signed in free agency exclusively for his run defense, and in the six games Dallas played with him they ranked eighth in run defense DVOA. For contrast, the team finished the year ranking 16th in run defense DVOA.
This weakness had been masked for the most part because the Cowboys’ opponents so often were caught playing from behind and thus forced to abandon the run, but that’s not how Shanahan and these 49ers operate. Just look at their comeback win over the Rams this past week; the 49ers called 13 pass plays to just five run plays in the first half. Then, trailing 17-3 to start the third quarter, Shanahan called 20 run plays to 17 pass plays before reaching overtime.
In other words, Shanahan doesn’t give up on the run. Perhaps he’s learned from the time he did so with a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl, but either way the Cowboys have to know that jumping out to an early lead in this one won’t mitigate the defense’s exposure to an offense that ranks fifth in rush DVOA.
The Cowboys will have to continually go for the knockout punch on offense, much like they did in home games against New York, Carolina, Atlanta, and Washington. That’s good news for a Dallas passing attack that just lit up the scoreboard against the Eagles on the road; the 49ers defense ranks second in run defense DVOA but 16th in pass defense DVOA. They heavily rely on Nick Bosa to create pressure but otherwise have a porous secondary, especially underneath. That sets up for Dalton Schultz and the recently-returned Blake Jarwin to have big games.
The Cowboys enter this game with a low margin for error. The 49ers are going to run the ball down this defense’s throat and try to limit the amount of possessions Dak Prescott gets. As such, they need to capitalize on the possessions they do have and score as often as possible. It won’t be enough to simply get a two-score lead and go into clock-killing mode, as they’ve done against more mediocre offenses this year.
Simply put, this is a game where the Cowboys need to do everything they can to serve up a 40-burger. Don’t let up and go straight for the jugular. We’ve seen them do this against several teams in their stadium this year. Hopefully we can come together on Monday morning and talk about how those other games were great practice.