In some ways, the first four games of the season just seem like a prelude for the Dallas Cowboys as they go to play the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday Night Football. Despite the one loss Dallas sports, this is seen as a matchup between two of the powerhouses in the NFC. The stats for the two teams support that idea. A win is more important for the 3-1 Cowboys than the 4-0 49ers, but you know that San Francisco is out to make a statement in this game.
We are still a bit unsure just how good this year’s Dallas team is. There are some things that could give them the win, but others could lead to their downfall.
They can win if Mike McCarthy calls a good game.
This is mostly about the head coach being able to handle a game that is not a developing blowout for the Cowboys. You know, like the one they lost a couple of weeks ago? McCarthy can grind you into dust when he has a two- or three-score lead, most NFL coaches can, but we just have not seen him figure out how to come from behind or even go blow-for-blow in a back and forth contest.
We’re really not expecting this to be another Dallas domination. The Niners are clearly the best team they have faced so far, and maybe the best they will see the entire regular season. Offensively, they are a scoring machine, but the big concern for McCarthy is of course the San Francisco defense. They are the fifth stingiest in yards allowed, just three spots behind the Cowboys. They only give up an average of 14.5 points a game, which puts them third behind Dallas’ league leading 10.3. And they have helped their team get to a plus five turnover margin.
The opposing defense is the main focus for McCarthy’s preparation, but keeping pace with such a productive offense is the other half of his responsibilities. The short passing/running game can only work if they are able to keep churning out first downs. Oh, and overcome another little problem we’ll get to a bit later.
We discussed this overall idea on the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you do not miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.
They can lose if the offensive line doesn’t hold together well.
Another week, another pall of existential dread over how many of the starters on the offensive line will be able to go on game day. While we automatically worry about the pass rush, a bigger concern as far as winning the game is whether the Texas Coast offense can run the ball effectively. That is a key part of the new scheme. And the Niners only give up an average of 66 yards per game. The run is so dependent on the blocking, and having to rely so much on backups is not exactly a big help there.
One thing to consider, however, is that San Fran has cruised in most of their games so far. with three blowout wins. The final score of the other, the 30-23 win over the Los Angeles Rams, is kind of deceptive, because Sean McVay elected to kick a field goal on the last play of the game to make the final margin seven points. That was a back and forth contest through the first half, though, so we know the 49ers can handle that kind of situation. We don’t know that at all about this year’s Cowboys.
They can win if the defense can get home against Brock Purdy.
Just pressuring him won’t work, because he tends to be very good when the pass rush is bearing down. They have to sack him, hit him as he’s throwing to disrupt the pass, and knock balls down. He has been sacked seven times, but Dallas needs to add to that total, a lot.
The reason is that this is the one way to make sure the weapons Purdy has on offense don’t ruin your day. Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and Christian McCaffrey can all kill you with the ball in space. Don’t give Purdy the chance to get the ball to them through the air and your chances for winning go way up. The Rams played them closer than anyone else, and held him to 206. Turnovers probably cost Los Angeles that game.
They can lose if they don’t slow down the run.
Oh, that McCaffrey fellow? He can also rip you apart on the ground. He is leading the league in rushing, the only back averaging over 100 yards a game (115). Stopping him is key to stopping their offense, assuming they are also holding the passing game down. He has led his team to an average of 153 ground yards per game.
The Cowboys are allowing just 112 yards per game, and only the Arizona Cardinals really got to them on the ground. We have to continue to hope that was an aberration. If Kyle Shanahan can find weaknesses to exploit with the run, they can control the game and it may be too much for McCarthy’s offense to keep up with.
They can win if they get that red zone thing fixed.
In some ways, the biggest play of the game might have come after it was already decided when Hunter Luepke barreled into the end zone from the three-yard line. That, for a moment at least, broke that red zone futility that has been plaguing the team since they went two for six against the New York Jets.
Further, a review of some of the failures against the New England Patriots make it plain that at least two of them were just failures in execution. Hopefully the offensive line will be close to full strength, and Prescott will be able to carry his efficiency inside the 20. And that touchdown pass to CeeDee Lamb was just barely outside the zone. It feels like they are on the verge of fixing this. The only question is whether they can get it done this game.
They can lose if they can’t run effectively.
This ties directly to the line, but also McCarthy’s play-calling as well as the running backs. Tony Pollard has done well, but they did back off on his carries against the Patriots. Rico Dowdle has been a very good relief runner, but now he is fighting injury as well. Obviously Deuce Vaughn is not the answer when Dowdle is not available. The Cowboys probably will have to elevate Malik Davis if Dowdle is not able to go, and rely on him and Luepke to carry the load along with Pollard. We hope the way Luepke scored to finally get a touchdown in the red zone will have them turning to him more anyway.
However they do it, they have to be able to succeed on running plays. If they can’t on early downs, it is just going to put more pressure on the quarterback and the passing game.
They can win if Dak keeps on playing well.
If you ignore the foolish chatter in the media, you will realize that Dak Prescott is having a very good year despite not doing well in volume stats. He’s certainly avoided the interceptions that plagued him last season so far. The most important stat here is that the Cowboys lead the league in converting third downs at 51.6%. When you factor in the red zone failures, it is clear they can move the ball to get in range with ease.
I'm not the first person to make this point, but Dallas being insane on 3rd down - basically since Dak came back from the thumb injury almost a year ago - is highly encouraging over a very large sample size. I'll gladly take that good with the bad of struggling in the red zone.— David Helman (@davidhelman_) October 3, 2023
We’ve already made the argument that the failures in the red zone may be mostly about execution. Some of that may be on Prescott, but we believe he can clear that up. If the rest of the offense also does their job, the red zone issue should be resolved.
They can lose if they let this game get into their heads.
We realize some may not buy into this, but we do think there is a history of the team beating themselves by coming out too anxious and making unforced errors. That may well have been a significant factor in the loss to Arizona, because there were certainly a bunch of those. The lone interception thrown by Prescott this season happened in that game, and it was probably a case of trying to force it in because they had to score at that point to stay in the game. That was set up by the other problems that put them in that situation.
We don’t know how this can be fixed. It is all about what goes on in the heads of the players. Being the most watched and by far the most covered team in the media, they can’t avoid seeing and hearing the criticisms. That is hard to deal with for anyone. They have to find a way to put it out of their minds and go play their best football. This team has the talent to go all the way if they can just keep their focus and play with aggression and precision.
If they fall prey to the doubts that can arise in anyone when they are constantly being told they ain’t all that, this could turn out to be a rough night in the Bay Area for them.