The Cowboys are preparing for the biggest game of the year (so far, at least) as they travel to San Francisco to take on the undefeated 49ers. There is, of course, plenty of history between these two teams, the most relevant of which is their playoff clashes each of the last two years.
For the third time in as many years, Dan Quinn and his extremely talented defense will face off against a loaded 49ers offense run by none other than Kyle Shanahan. While most people know Shanahan as one of the top offensive play-callers in football today, Quinn knows him a little better. Shanahan was the offensive coordinator under Quinn for his first two years with the Falcons, during which time the two of them reached the Super Bowl and ultimately lost in overtime to the Patriots.
Quinn’s first playoff game against Shanahan didn’t go so well for the Cowboys. The 49ers put up 341 yards of offense and gashed the defense for 169 yards on the ground. Quinn’s group did much better the second time around, limiting San Francisco to just 312 yards of offense and just 3.5 yards per carry. Still, Quinn’s team lost both times.
Shanahan and his offensive scheme have taken the league by storm, to the point where a majority of the NFL runs this type of offense in some fashion or another. Two of the Cowboys’ four opponents thus far - Nathaniel Hackett of the Jets and Drew Petzing of the Cardinals - can trace their offensive roots back to Shanahan. Of course, Shanahan himself has evolved his offense from the one his father, Mike Shanahan, used to dominate the league when he was the Broncos head coach back in the 90’s and early 2000’s.
The younger Shanahan has taken that offense - a West Coast scheme that made extensive use of the outside zone run - and spiced it up with some modern concepts. It also helps that he has a ton of talent to work with. Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk are one of the best receiver tandems in the league, George Kittle is the second best tight end, and Christian McCaffrey has elevated an already potent rushing attack with his immense talent.
At the center of it all this year is Brock Purdy, the last pick of the draft a year ago. He went from third stringer to starter last year and has yet to lose a game that he starts and finishes. More than that, Purdy has seemingly made a lot of growth this year in his throwing mechanics, and it’s played a part in the quarterback leading the league in EPA/play and QBR through this first month of football.
That said, much of Purdy’s success has to do with Shanahan running a scheme that almost any quarterback can succeed in. Shanahan got results from the likes of C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens before turning in some really great teams featuring Jimmy Garoppolo under center. Purdy, who will only start his 13th career game (including playoffs) this week, is the latest example of this.
Shanahan’s offense is predicated on confusing a defense. He uses a ton of pre-snap motion and shifts to draw defenders’ eyes away from the focus of the play. Misdirection is a core tenet of this scheme, and it’s a direct result of the outside zone that features heavily here. Shanahan makes extensive use of play-action rollouts that buy the quarterback a clean pocket because the defense is all heading the other direction to stop what they think is a run play.
This year with Purdy, Shanahan has even modified things to fit his quarterback, who primarily played out of the shotgun at Iowa State. Instead of going under center, Shanahan has implemented a play-action concept where Purdy fakes the handoff from the shotgun and then begins a shortened sprint out to one side before flipping his hips to fire the ball across the field to the intended target on a crossing route, a staple in this passing attack.
This has a very similar effect to the play-action rollouts Shanahan uses from under center. When the quarterback is in the shotgun, defenders can usually read the mesh point better because it’s easier to see. So adding the sprint out action makes up for that, and it gets defenders moving to whichever side Purdy is headed in anticipation that there will be a quick throw there. That results in the back side of the play being vacated, and the crossing route goes right to that space. Purdy doesn’t possess the most elite arm talent, but he’s consistent enough in his throwing motion that he can get squared up and throw a clean enough pass to the wide open holes created by Shanahan’s methodical scheming.
So what’s the solution to this? There’s no easy answer, because Shanahan is great at making in-game adjustments whenever a defense does figure something out. Generally speaking, though, the answer to play tight man coverage and maintain gap discipline upfront. That takes away any massive holes in the run game and prevents second-level defenders from getting too distracted by all the misdirection Shanahan is so good at using.
Of course, this is easier said than done, but the Cowboys have the talent to accomplish such a task. They fared well against this same offense in the playoffs last year, and Purdy had the worst game of his very young career against this defense. He’s also been flirting with disaster so far this season, with the sixth highest rate of turnover worthy plays among quarterbacks. However, Purdy has yet to throw an interception, demonstrating really good luck in that department.
One overlooked aspect of this 49ers offense is their offensive line, which has not played to their standards this year. Left tackle Trent Williams remains elite, but the right side of the line has struggled mightily. Center Jake Brendel and right tackle Colton McKivitz have each allowed seven pressures while right guard Spencer Burford’s 12 pressures allowed rank fifth among guards. McKivitz has also been responsible for four sacks; only two offensive linemen have given up more this year.
This has resulted in the 49ers offensive line giving up pressure on 25.6% of their dropbacks, eighth most in the league. Purdy has been great at getting the ball out under pressure - averaging second-lowest-in-the-league 2.87 seconds per throw when pressured - but he’s only completing 48.6% of those passes and has the fourth highest turnover worthy play rate under pressure.
Getting in Purdy’s face is clearly the key to making this offense unravel, and the 49ers have struggled to keep him clean this year, but the Cowboys can’t get too confident in their pass rush like they did against Arizona. Discipline will be key to this Dallas defense’s ability to limit the 49ers offense. Shanahan’s unit has scored at least 30 points in every game so far, but the Cowboys are the first defense with the talent to change that. Whether or not they can will play a major factor in whether or not the Cowboys can pull off a win Sunday night.