One of the teams playing on Sunday Night Football this week runs a dominant, West Coast influenced offense with an elite running game, paired with a defense that gets after the quarterback with ease and creates turnovers. Unfortunately, this team was not the Dallas Cowboys. It was instead the San Francisco 49ers, dismantling the Cowboys and beating them at their own game to remain undefeated at 5-0. The loss sends the Cowboys to 3-2, two games behind the 5-0 Eagles with way more questions than answers about what they can accomplish this season.
A week five primetime game may still be too early to make any definitive statements about how teams match up in the playoffs, but with the 49ers already having consecutive playoff wins against the Cowboys coming in, they did nothing but show the gap between these teams has widened with a 42-10 rout. The Cowboys have work to do themselves to even prove they belong in the playoff picture, with wins against a Giants team that lost 31-16 to the Dolphins on Sunday and Patriots team shut out at home 34-0 versus the Saints. The Jets earned their second win with Zach Wilson at QB, but against a now 1-4 Denver Broncos team, continuing the frustrating pattern of the Cowboys looking like world beaters against lesser competition (except the Cardinals) but faltering against contending teams.
In what was easily the biggest test of the year to date, the Cowboys were completely taken out of their run game both by the 49ers defense winning the line of scrimmage, and the score getting away from them early. Dak Prescott had few options in the passing game, with Jake Ferguson, Luke Schoonmaker, and Tony Pollard being kept in more to pass protect. When he did have chances, he was off the mark on some of them. Making poor decisions or forcing contested throws to CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup, and Brandin Cooks led to Prescott’s first three interception game since week five of 2019 against the Packers.
The 42-10 deficit is Mike McCarthy’s worst loss as a head coach since his first season with the Packers in 2006, losing 35-0 at home to a Patriots team that went to the AFC Championship game. In his first season as the play-caller for the Cowboys offense, he’ll have to answer for the team not showing up in all three phases in a loss like this, but more concerning is the Cowboys having their desired starting five offensive linemen in this game and still netting just 282 yards with three turnovers.
The Cowboys will get yet another glimpse into how this 2023 team compares to recent years as they prepare for another primetime game next Monday night at the Chargers, pitting a defense fresh off an embarrassment at the hands of Kyle Shanahan against former Dallas offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. Simply showing up with a tangible game plan and level of intensity needed to win will be the first box to check for the Cowboys in this game, but before anything can be added about a matchup of teams searching for contending status, here are a few further notes on the debacle in Santa Clara.
- A staple of Dan Quinn’s defense is creating different looks for opposing quarterbacks in the middle of the field, forcing them to throw from the pocket against tight man coverage on the outside. There were a lot of elements to the Cowboys defense that fell a step behind the 49ers all night, but when this core concept wasn’t there, it created far too many easy throws for a rhythm passer like Brock Purdy.
Purdy has regularly shown he can fit the ball to big receivers like Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel over the middle, and the Cowboys had no answers for trying to match up with safeties Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker, and Donovan Wilson while being conscious of their run fits against Christian McCaffrey. The Cowboys have been punished by offenses before for not lining up with more traditional linebackers, but perhaps never more so then in this masterclass of a game plan from Shanahan and the 49ers. While Dallas struggled to mix up the run and pass, telegraphing that Tony Pollard would be used to pick up extra rushers, the 49ers got whatever throw they needed for Purdy while averaging 4.1 yards per play on the ground.
On George Kittle’s first of three touchdowns, it was Leighton Vander Esch finding himself in a mismatch covering the star tight end out of the slot. Vander Esch never even got a hand on Kittle to redirect the route, and then took a flat angle in pursuit of Purdy on the rollout. This was just one example of the 49ers scheming their best players into favorable looks and taking full advantage, with Purdy having plenty of time to throw over the top to Kittle.
- The Cowboys tried early to establish Pollard in this game, but by the end of the night Dallas comes out of this game with concerns about their current backfield situation. Pollard took a first down carry for no gain on the offense’s second series, before a swing pass to CeeDee Lamb set up a third down where Prescott was sacked by Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead. The Cowboys longest first down rush of the game would be Pollard for seven yards, and falling behind the chains severely limited their playbook. In a game where the safety valve throws that have been talked about as a new addition to McCarthy’s scheme should have been prominent, the Cowboys fell into the familiar trap of Prescott having to stand in the pocket and deliver to blanketed receivers. Some buzz leading into the game about this finally being a featured game for trade acquisition Brandin Cooks ended with four targets, only one of which was caught for seven yards, and another intercepted downfield.
Dallas may still be right that the sum of their parts in the backfield is better than the tandem they had between Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott last year, but when games get away quickly like Sunday night, the playmaking ability of Pollard is handcuffed dramatically, with only Rico Dowdle mainly being trusted to spell him for any snaps at all.
- The only bright spot for the Cowboys offense was a pass to Kavontae Turpin resulting in their only touchdown. The play had pre-snap motion from Turpin to give Prescott an ID of the defense, and got Turpin using his speed in space. The Cowboys have yet to consistently get strong YAC receivers like Lamb and Cooks in these opportunities, but with defenses less expecting of Turpin to beat them over the top, he may have to be a more consistent part of the offense to open up more shot plays.
- The final demoralizing play of the night for the Cowboys was Jordan Mason sprinting untouched for a 26-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, the final points of the game for the 49ers. The 42 points they ended with are the most given up by a Quinn defense since the 2019 Falcons allowed 436 passing yards and five touchdowns to DeShaun Watson and the Texans. Donovan Wilson failed to set the edge from the second level on the play, leaving only Malik Hooker in the hole to come downhill and try to tackle Mason. Hooker has struggled against the run this season, as the Cowboys saw Juanyeh Thomas make a few splash plays in coverage this game. The Cowboys looked to improve their run defense from the line of scrimmage outwards this offseason, drafting defensive tackle Mazi Smith and bringing back Johnathan Hankins, but continue to see running backs create explosive plays when reaching the second level and forcing these secondary players to tackle consistently.