The Dallas Cowboys will certainly be doing everything they can to beat the team that has ended their season each of the last two years, the San Francisco 49ers. Many saw last year’s playoff loss as the final indictment of Kellen Moore, and the straw that broke the camel’s back on the decision for Mike McCarthy to take over play-calling.
Well, here’s the first real test for McCarthy and this Texas Coast offense. Through four games, the Cowboys have been one of the best offenses at moving the ball and getting points, but most of those points have been field goals. McCarthy has generally seen success so far, but the red zone remains a key area in need of improvement. That’ll need to get fixed if McCarthy wants to beat the 49ers and earn a little extra validation for his decision to part ways with Moore following last year’s loss to this team.
That said, this isn’t the same defense the Cowboys faced a year ago. DeMeco Ryans, the 49ers defensive coordinator for the last two years, left for the Texans head coaching job. In his place is Steve Wilks, who spent last year as the interim head coach of the Panthers. Wilks had been the Panthers defensive coordinator before, under Ron Rivera, and also had one year as the head coach of the Cardinals. Now, he’s running the defense in San Francisco.
Wilks has introduced quite a few changes, too. Whereas Ryans was promoted from within the organization when Robert Saleh got the Jets job, Wilks comes from outside the organization and has his own style of running a defense. Early in his NFL career, Wilks coached under Rivera with stops in Chicago and San Diego before following him to Carolina when Rivera became the head coach. As such, Wilks’ scheme is heavily influenced by Rivera.
Historically, that’s meant a heavy use of four down linemen and a wide variety of coverage schemes. Wilks, a defensive backs coach by trade, has often gone to the extremes with how much he switches things up in the secondary. Disguised coverages are mandatory for Wilks, and once he became a coordinator he upped it another level by flooding the field with defensive backs. It’s not uncommon for Wilks to trot out six defensive backs, giving him plenty of options with what coverage he calls on each play.
Wilks has also been very fond of blitzes. His first year running the defense in Carolina, they led the league in blitz rate, and while he didn’t call the plays as head coach, Wilks’ Cardinals defense was third in the league in blitz rate. That made for an interesting fit when Wilks came to San Francisco, as Ryans had the team in the bottom third in blitz usage each of his two years there.
Granted, a lot of that has to do with the embarrassment of riches that is the 49ers’ defensive line. Nick Bosa won Defensive Player of the Year in 2022, and so far he’s seventh in pressures among edge rushers this year with 20. Arik Armstead, who rotates inside and outside, and Drake Jackson both have 11 pressures to their name while the interior duo of Javon Hargrave and Javon Kinlaw are both in the top 10 among interior defenders for pressures.
Due to all this talent on the defensive line, Wilks has yet to dial up the blitzes in San Francisco. Right now, the 49ers are sending an extra rusher on just 20.1% of opponent dropbacks; only six teams are blitzing less this season. Wilks has instead made heavy use of simulated pressure looks to trick opposing quarterbacks, but odds are good he’s got a lengthy blitz package just waiting to be unleashed.
In the secondary, Wilks has mostly stayed true to his tendencies. That happens to match up fairly well with what Ryans was running, too. The 49ers are primarily playing zone coverage, though Wilks does a good job of diversifying what types of coverages he runs. As mentioned earlier, he’s once again utilizing a ton of defensive backs, with four frequent contributors at cornerback.
The top two guys are Deommodore Lenoir and former Cowboy Charvarius Ward. Wilks generally deploys these two outside, while Isaiah Oliver gets plenty of time in the slot. Oliver has been especially good, as his 60.7 passer rating allowed from the slot ranks fifth in the league. But Wilks also makes use of Ambry Thomas, who’s played on just over a fourth of defensive snaps so far this year. When Thomas comes in, he lines up outside and Lenoir moves inside along with Oliver.
This 49ers defense definitely looks a little different from last year’s group, but they’re still really good. San Francisco ranks seventh in defensive DVOA and ninth in EPA/play allowed. If there’s one spot this defense has been vulnerable, it’s against the run. The 49ers are 23rd in run defense DVOA and 28th in EPA/carry. The caveat there is that the 49ers have been leading in so many games that opponents rarely run the ball on them, as evidenced by this defense having the fewest carries against so far this year. However, when teams have run the ball, they’ve generally had success.
It’s really not hard to figure out this 49ers defense. Even with the wrinkles Wilks has added, this is a group that wants to overpower the offensive line with just four rushers. They’ll disguise their coverages to force the quarterback to hold the ball a little longer, which is all their defensive line needs to win. They also feature arguably the best off-ball linebacker in the game, Fred Warner, who anchors everything with his tremendous instincts in coverage.
The 49ers defense succeeds largely because of their sheer talent, rather than innovating scheming genius. That can make it hard to win, but there are areas where the Cowboys can attack. That was true last year as well, but Moore didn’t seem capable of finding those areas. McCarthy believes he can, so now is the time to see if that’s true or if Bosa and company will once again make life hard on Dak Prescott.