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Cowboys point/counterpoint: Why focusing on the 49ers running game may not be the best approach

Let’s question some conventional wisdom for the Cowboys

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

One significant reason the Dallas Cowboys have made it to the three seed in the playoffs with a 12-5 record is the marked improvement in their defense. Dan Quinn has really made a difference on that side of the ball. It sadly makes him a hot commodity in the head coach market, but that is a worry for another day. Right now the issue at hand is how Quinn’s defense will hold up against the San Francisco 49ers in the Wild Card Round on Sunday.

The Cowboys come into this game after a complete pounding of the Philadelphia Eagles. Virtually none of the Eagles starters even saw the field in a strategic move with their playoff seed mostly locked down. The 49ers had a much different game. They beat the Los Angeles Rams in overtime in a hard fought contest that earned San Francisco a playoff spot while dropping the Rams behind the Cowboys in the seeding. There is a general perception that the way the Niners will beat you is with a strong, unpredictable running game. Our Tom Ryle lays out why that is what Dallas needs to focus on. Terence Watson, however, thinks that might be a mistake.

Tom: Let’s come at this from two directions. First, the running game for the 49ers was absolutely a critical part of their exciting win last Sunday. They amassed 135 yards and a touchdown on the ground against the vaunted Rams defensive front, featuring Aaron Donald, for years arguably the best defender in the league. Thanks to a trade during the season, he was joined by Von Miller, former Super Bowl MVP and, like Donald, a future Hall of Famer. While that is a good performance in light of what they were up against, the total yards do not tell the whole story.

In that game, the Rams jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the first half before the 49ers finally got something going to drive for a field goal as the half ran out to cut it to a 14-point deficit. In that situation, you would expect them to lean almost entirely on Jimmy Garoppolo’s arm to try and catch up. But they didn’t. Coming out of the half, they did utilize a 31-yard completion to get into Los Angeles territory, but capped that drive with a 16-yard touchdown run by Deebo Samuel. Although Samuel is a wide receiver, he also plays an integral role in the running game, and had eight carries total in that game.

Then, still down by a touchdown, San Francisco put together an eleven-play TD drive with the first ten plays all on the ground. They dared the Rams to stop the run, and L.A. had no answer.

That is exactly what the Cowboys have to stop. And there are doubts. Against those Eagles backups, they gave up 149 yards. Yes, they were missing Micah Parsons, who is to their defense what Samuel is to the 49ers offense. Still, that softness against the run has to be concerning. The key to Dallas getting a win is going to be seriously slowing down that SF running game.

Terence: I agree stopping the run is a good idea when you think about stopping this 49ers offense, but what actually scares me the most is their physicality at the wide receiver position. With Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and tight end George Kittle they have pass catchers that can make plays down the field that pick up big gains. That is something that the Cowboys secondary has been beaten by in previous years and this one as well.

Fellow BTB writer Aidan Davis touches on this in his recent article when he talks about the 49ers using the run to set up Garoppolo for deep shots down the field. We've seen how our aggressive cornerbacks have been fooled time and time again on double moves resulting in big gains and touchdowns. This week Trevon Diggs and Anthony Brown have to play smart football and keep their eyes on the receiver and not get caught peeking back at Garoppolo.

If they allow these pass catchers to get into the open field they become a load to bring down. Samuel in particular needs to have special attention placed on him. I'd like to see Diggs, who has been following the best receiver on the field recently, to continue the trend. That matchup could ultimately be what wins the game for the Cowboys this weekend.

Tom: I said I was coming at this from two directions, and this is the other. The Cowboys, I believe, have a big opportunity when Garoppolo is throwing the ball. He can get sloppy with it, and not just when passing. He also has been known to fumble it under attack from the pass rushers. This team has thrived on takeaways, and with Diggs back in action after missing last game, it is time to go get some more.

That is why keeping the Niners from controlling the ball with the run game is the first job for the defense. Force them to go with the pass and I believe the odds favor Dallas. Samuel is a problem, but Kittle has not been as formidable lately. I have faith that the secondary can keep them in check.

But let the running game just grind down the field, and the game is going to be a lot harder to win. It is especially crucial to stop them early, so the Cowboys can do their own damage on offense. I think Dak Prescott and company are going to feast on the San Francisco secondary. Just don’t give them a chance to keep up with their own drives.

Terence: I see where you are coming from, but we also have to take into account the familiarity factor between Shanahan and Quinn. Shanahan has put together a solid running game, and while it scares a lot of people, he’s also shown he knows how to air it out when needed. While Garoppolo isn’t on the same level as Matt Ryan was during his time with Shanahan, he can still make plays through the air. The 49ers best bet this week is to come out guns blazing and attack this Cowboys secondary early in order to open up the running game.

Let’s not forget that Garoppolo has thrown for almost 4,000 yards this season and 20 touchdowns. Those stats would have been a lot higher if not for his injuries that kept him out of games. So we can’t just assume that the 49ers are going to try and grind this game down to keep the Cowboys offense off the field. All week Quinn and the rest of the Cowboys defenders have made it a point to say they have to stop the run. You can rest assured that Shanahan has been following all of this and is going to try and catch the Cowboys off guard, and at the same time put the pressure immediately on the Cowboys offense to respond if given the chance.

You’re right the Cowboys need to get stops early but they also have to be prepared for Shanahan to come out with play-action and double moves on them. Look for Kittle and Aiyuk to get a lot of jump balls thrown their way while Samuel makes all of the tough plays in the middle of the field to move the ball down the field. Once they get into the red zone that’s when I see the 49ers running game becoming a major factor in this game as they will look to pound the football into the endzone.

To beat this Cowboys team they will need to start fast because they know they don’t have enough firepower to keep up if the Cowboys come out hot.