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Position battleground (defense): Cowboys vs. 49ers head-to-head breakdown

A positional head-to-head breakdown of the Week 5 matchup between the Cowboys and 49ers on defense and special teams.

NFL: JAN 22 NFC Divisional Playoffs - TBD at 49ers Photo by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Previously we broke down the offense for this week’s upcoming game between the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers. Now we dive back into the position battleground, this time looking at how the defensive positions and special teams stack up against each other for the Week 5 NFC matchup.

Last week the Dallas Cowboys defensive line looked completely transformed from how they played against the Arizona Cardinals. They allowed only 46 rush yards to the New England Patriots running backs. They also caused a fumble for a touchdown and created 23 pressures against Mac Jones. Micah Parsons gave everyone a scare with the ankle sprain which saw him miss part of the game. He returned later but looked in discomfort. Some argue that with the injury and having such a commanding lead late in the game, the coaches should have kept Parsons out the game. But this is Micah Parsons we’re talking about, a player who’s aiming for Defensive Player of The Year. He finished last week’s game with 10 total pressures, the most in a single game this season.

Dante Fowler showed off his athletic skills when he caused the fumble that ended in a defensive touchdown. Fowler had a career reawakening last year and is looking to replicate those efforts in this season. Chauncey Golston managed to catch the ball to get into the endzone. Yes, it was a two-point conversion, but he still had to get off the line quickly and catch ball. And who doesn’t like seeing one of the big guys score. Sam Williams got a sack which was good to see and showed great teamwork.

A name not seen often in the battleground series is Neville Gallimore. The Cowboys decided to not move on from Gallimore, and against the Patriots he showed why. He redirected the play back into Cowboys defenders a number of times, or made the tackle himself. Even Mazi Smith was a big factor last week in helping stop the run and had his best game so far the Cowboys.

Against the 49ers running game, this defensive unit will need to be on top form and be as clinical as they can. The defensive tackles and nose tackles will be the most important factor this week in stopping the run, as the majority of Christian McCaffrey’s runs come through both a-gaps or down in the right b-gap. If they can stop, or at least marginalize McCaffrey’s runs, there’s a huge chance for the Cowboys to come away with the win.

The 49ers have spent a huge amount of resources on the defensive line to stop the run. Nick Bosa creates pressures at a high level and ranks first for 49ers in total pressures, but he’s also elite when it comes to stopping the run, and may be the best run-stopping defensive end. On the inside is Javon Hargrave, who is second on the team in pressures. He is also tied for first in sacks on the team and leads the 49ers in defensive stops. Completing the talent at defensive tackle for the 49ers is Arik Armstead and Javon Kinlaw. Both are powerful and fantastic at creating pressure from the inside.

The battle between these two teams at defensive line looks like this. The Cowboys have 95 total pressures and 14 sacks. They also lead the league in turnovers which has be a direct result of the defensive line play. As for the 49ers, they have 97 total pressures and nine sacks. But they rank third in rush yards allowed. This is a defensive line in two different worlds. One predicated on the pass rush, one stopping the run.
Win: Push

New England Patriots v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Leighton Vander Esch/Damone Clark
Dre Greenlaw/Fred Warner

Last week Leighton Vander Esch played much better. He was key on a few tackles, he was getting off blocks effectively and shooting gaps with good timing. He then sealed the deal of a quality game with the scoop-and-score to record his first NFL touchdown. Damone Clark also had a better game last week. Both players showing that if the Cowboys defensive line does it’s job, the linebackers can do theirs. Playing against the run and helping in coverage against the likes of George Kittle and Deebo Samuel is a huge test for the linebacker corps this week.

Both Dre Greenlaw and Fred Warner are ranked in the top-ten in total tackles this year with Greenlaw also having the ninth-most defensive stops among linebackers. Since coming in the league in 2018, Fred Warner has been one of the elite players at the position. He plays almost like an oversized safety with the instincts to find the ball carrier and cover effectively in space. He wins with fantastic athletic ability as well as good length and fluid hips. His change of direction skills at the position is one of the best.

This is a win for the 49ers. The Cowboys linebackers looked much better last week and made a lot of solid plays, but the 49ers linebackers are far more consistent and reliable. A lot of the 49ers success in stopping the run is due to their linebacker corps being in the right place at the right time with purpose.
Win: 49ers

Arizona Cardinals v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

So let’s start off with the hot topic here, DaRon Bland. Against the Cardinals things looked a little shaky for Bland playing on the outside, but as the game progressed he continued to play better. That progression continued last week which led to two interceptions with one going for a pick-six. Finding cornerbacks that can turn the ball over is one of the hardest tasks in scouting, and the Cowboys not only have two, they found one in the fifth round. Bland now has seven interceptions in the last ten games. Stephon Gilmore allowed zero receptions off three targets last week. He does have a weakness where he struggles to stick with receivers when they go in motion. It’s something to keep an eye on for now.

Jayron Kearse had a busy day last week but did well in defending the tight ends, allowing only 47 yards receiving. Donovan Wilson came in and made some great physical plays in the run game. His ability to make plays on defense changes the Cowboys entire way they play, and it’s noticeable when he’s on the field. Having him back in full swing against the 49ers should give fans a lot of hope.

Charvarius Ward is the 49ers leading cornerback. The crazy part about Ward is he was on the Cowboys roster back in 2018 when he went undrafted. Now he helps defend on one of the best defenses in the NFL and has found success in the past against Dallas. Ward has good length, speed and athleticism to consistently make a play on the ball. His best trait is his ability to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage on a consistent basis. All this sounds good, so why did he go undrafted? The answer was experience. He was raw and needed time to develop, which is what he got. Now the 49ers have a gem they’ve polished to play the position at a high level.

Deommodore Lenoir is the 49ers other starting corner and is allowing a 78% completion at the moment. He’s a pretty twitchy athlete and is also super physical. His issue comes with size. He’s only 5’10” so he can get taken advantage of on high balls. He’s a guy that relies a lot on his physicality to win on deep balls, something a guy like Brandin Cooks could take advantage of. As for the slot, they have Isaiah Oliver. He’s struggled in parts this year, so a guy like CeeDee Lamb could expose this area of the field and take this weakness to his advantage. Safety, Talanoa Hufanga is a brilliant physical player that can help very effectively in stopping the run.

This is a hard call to make between these two teams units. But the Cowboys are only allowing an average of 148 passing yards per game, the second-least in the NFL. The 49ers are allowing 218 passing yards per game, that ranks 18th-most in the league. The 49ers also have less interceptions and less pass breakups than Dallas.
Win: Cowboys

New England Patriots v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images


When the Cowboys decided to put Brandon Aubrey on the field for the 66-yard field goal attempt, some people in the stadium cheered to see what he could do and how much power is behind that kick. For others, they didn’t want Aubrey to take the kick with a high risk of missing, ending his current streak. A penalty ended the suspense. Aubrey is still perfect on field goals this year and last week made all three extra points and all three field goals.

Jake Moody for the 49ers is also perfect on the year. He has yet to miss an extra point and he’s knocked all nine of his field goal attempts.

Bryan Anger was an under-the-radar factor to last week’s domination. He kicked an important 57-yard punt and pinned the Patriots in their own redzone twice last week. The pressure he added to the Patriots offense is another reason for the huge win last week.

The 49ers have Mitch Wishnowsky, who is averaging 45 yards per punt, that ranks 23rd among starting punters.

KaVontae Turpin had a couple of opportunities to get going on punt returns. But credit where it’s due, the Patriots did well to cover the punt returns against Turpin. Talking of punt defense though, we all need to thank Jalen Tolbert for the huge hustle play to get to the Patriots return man. What Tolbert did to stop any chance of a return resulted in the Patriots pinned near their own endzone. From that play came the Dallas fumble recovery for the score.

Ray-Ray McCloud III does the return work for the 49ers. He averages 11 yards-per-return, which is nearly double of Turpin’s production this year. McCloud has also 100 yards of punt return yards this season, which is fifth-most among returners this year. The Cowboys punt defense has shown it’s one of the best in the league however and is proving to be an elite unit on this Cowboys roster.
Win: Cowboys


Which team has the better defense?

This poll is closed

  • 68%
    Dallas Cowboys
    (277 votes)
  • 31%
    San Francisco 49ers
    (128 votes)
405 votes total Vote Now

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