The Dallas Cowboys have seen their season come to an end at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers in two straight years. It goes without saying that the boys in blue have something to prove against the red and gold. Entering the new season, both these teams were heralded as two of the teams to beat in the NFL and now they will square off on Sunday night. What should we expect in this one? Here are five things to watch when the Cowboys travel to Santa Clara to play the 49ers.
1. Sister Christian, how you must be stopped
It’s no secret that running back Christian McCaffrey is the 49ers' most potent offensive weapon. The guy is averaging 150 scrimmage yards per game and has already touched paydirt six times this season. That’s only two less than the entire Cowboys offense. McCaffrey leads the league in rushing with 459 yards as the 49ers are milking every ounce of goodness from him. He’s averaging 20 rushing attempts per game after averaging just 14 in each of the last two seasons. Expect a heavy dose of CMC in this one.
The Cowboys' defense enters the game ranked 27th in rushing yards efficiency as they give up 4.6 yards per carry. Of course, that data needs a little context. They were taken to the woodshed in Arizona allowing 7.4 yards per carry, but that was skewed thanks to some big runs by non-running backs. In the other three games the Cowboys’ defense has only given up 225 yards on 67 carries at the tune of just 3.4 yards per carry. If we see the good version of this run defense, the Cowboys have a fighting chance to stop McCaffrey. And CMC isn’t going to be sneaking up on them as the Cowboys will make a concerted effort to limit the damage. It’s worth noting that McCaffrey only had 35 yards on 10 carries (3.5 ypc) against Dallas in last year’s playoff game.
2. Purdy vs. Cowboys pass defense
What a nice find Mr. Irrelevant turned out to be as
Colin Kaepernick Jimmy Garoppolo Trey Lance Brock Purdy is orchestrating this high-powered 49ers offense. Viewed as a bus-driving game manager, the second-year quarterback is making all the right decisions so far. He’s thrown for over 1,000 yards on the year, has five touchdown passes, and has yet to throw a pick. He currently leads the NFL with a league-best 115.1 passer rating.
On the flip side, the Cowboys' defense is incredible as they have given up the fewest points this season, including a league-low two receiving touchdowns. Teams just can’t throw on these guys. That’s largely because of their elite pass rush which pressures the quarterback a league-best 48.9% of the time. And while Purdy has the best passer rating in the league, the Cowboys defense has a passer rating of just 55.2, which is tops in the league.
3. Doing more with less
The Cowboys aren’t the only team with a monster pass rush as the 49ers are absolute beasts in the trenches. Their superstars Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead lead the way, but like Dallas, this group is deep. They also have Javon Kinlaw who is in the final year of a rookie deal, low-cost free agent signing Clelin Ferrell who was the former fourth overall pick in 2019, and promising young edge rusher Drake Jackson who is tied for the team with three sacks.
The 49ers pressure the quarterback 40.5% of the time which is sixth-best in the league, but they do it without blitzing very much. This allows their back seven to wander and that can create a lot of trouble for the Cowboys offense as they look for open areas to throw the ball. Dak Prescott will need to be smart or else the media will have a frenzy Monday morning talking about throws that shouldn’t have been thrown.
4. Protect against the big play
The Cowboys defense has been great 98% of the time, but sometimes that 2% can prove costly. Whether it’s Garrett Wilson racing across the middle or Michael Wilson gallivanting uncontested down the field, the Cowboys' defense can sometimes fall victim to big plays. Five times so far this year, they’ve allowed a play of more than 40 yards.
The 49ers have a some scary playmakers in their offense in the form of Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and the aforementioned McCaffrey. It would be very unfortunate to see the defense hold up for a great majority of the game only to falter by having a letdown on a single play.
5. 40th matchup between these two teams
These teams have a long history against each other. The Cowboys dominated in the ‘70s, the 49ers returned the favor in the ‘80s, and they took turns beating each other in the ‘90s. In 20 years starting in 2001, the Cowboys have gotten the better of them winning seven of nine games against the 49ers. However, San Francisco has won when it counted as they have bounced the Cowboys from the playoffs in each of the last two years.
This will mark the 40th time these teams will have played each other with both teams winning 19 times a piece (they tied once). The winner of this game will be the first team to 20 wins.