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A defensive look: Both defensive lines will overshadow the offensive firepower

The 49ers and Cowboys are two of the best pass rushing teams in the NFL

San Francisco 49ers v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The 49ers and Cowboys have rosters full of offensive firepower. Both teams are led by well-known offensive coaches with two high-profile quarterbacks. So from a talent perspective, this is the best game of the weekend.

The line on this game favors Dallas by three points. The total on this game is 50.5 at DraftKings Sportsbook is the highest this weekend.

Jimmy Garoppolo and Dak Prescott are must-see. You’re guaranteed high-level quarterback play, but you’re bound to have a few head-scratching throws mixed in. Each quarterback brings a different level of excitement to the game.

For years now, Trent Williams and Tyron Smith have been the top left tackles in the NFL. Then you have the “so good we take them for granted” players in George Kittle, who missed three games and still managed 900 yards receiving. A few weeks ago, Amari Cooper complained about his lack of involvement in the offense. Of course, we all know what Cooper is capable of.

But it’s the youth movement that makes both teams must-see. Deebo Samuel morphed into a superstar this season, while CeeDee Lamb went over 1,000 yards receiving in his second season. Samuel and Lamb often steal the show, but each team has more weapons at their disposal.

What Brandon Aiyuk means to the 49ers is what running back Tony Pollard means to the Cowboys: Good things happen for your offense when you get them involved.

Jauan Jennings made his best Dalton Schultz impression last week against the Rams as he nearly eclipsed the 100-yard receiving mark. The former Stanford tight end has surpassed 75 receiving yards four times this season as the fourth option.

And we haven’t even gotten to Elijah Mitchell and Ezekiel Elliot in the backfield. There’s an embarrassment of riches on each offense.

Differing defensive lines

Despite all of the talent listed above on the offensive side of the ball, each team’s best position group is its defensive line. Unfortunately, both teams suffered injuries mid-season that forced them to make some changes upfront.

Cowboys edge rusher DeMarcus Lawerence broke his foot in September. Dallas was thin at defensive end, so they started using rookie linebacker Micah Parsons as a pass rusher. Parsons is sixth in the NFL in sacks and total pressures at a brand new position.

Javon Kinlaw made it until Week 5 this season before shutting it down and undergoing surgery on his knee that would end his season. The 49ers tried to replace Kinlaw with Kentavius Street, Maurice Hurst, Zach Kerr. Their run defense struggled in Kinlaw’s absence.

Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans had enough and started using Arik Armstead inside full-time. That moved Samson Ebukam into the starting lineup to replace Armstead on the edge while Armstead took over for Kinlaw.

The 6’7 Armstead became a nightmare to block for guards five inches shorter than him. Armstead finished the season third among defensive tackles in ESPN’s run-stop win rate, two spots behind his running mate defensive tackle D.J. Jones.

Nick Bosa was the only pass rusher among both teams to finish in the top-10 for pass-rush win-rate at sixth. Statistically, Bosa and Cowboys edge rusher Randy Gregory are two of the most productive pass rushers in the league. The only stat Bosa wasn’t top-five in was batted passes.

As a team, Dallas is fourth in pressure rate this season while blitzing at the 10th highest rate. The Niners are fourth in adjusted sack rate. The emergence of Arden Key — the Rams were chipping him with a running back at one point last Sunday — gives you flashbacks to 2019.

If you start at the top of that graph in the tweet, you don’t have to get far to see how highly Key ranks.

There are similarities between these teams when you look at the journey that made each position group elite. But how each plays and gets after the quarterback couldn’t be more different.

Here’s how I’d describe the 49ers. You have a quarterback going through his cadence getting ready for the ball on one side. On the other side, you have defensive line coach Kris Kocurek holding leashes of four angry K-9’s ready to snap.

The Niners pass rush is ferocious and a bit reckless. The chaos they create is often as beneficial as the actual sack. They force quarterbacks into lousy decision-making.

I’d describe the Cowboys pass rush as sprinters casually getting into the blocks as the quarterback is about to snap the ball. Once the gun goes off, the speed and force you see is a thing of beauty.

Whichever quarterback performs better under pressure likely wins in a game where both defensive lines figure to get the best of their opposition. Pro Football Reference has a “bad throw percentage” stat. Jimmy Garoppolo has the second-lowest, while Dak Prescott has the seventh-lowest.

In the playoffs, you can’t afford to overcome turnovers. In the last five games, Garoppolo has seven touchdowns compared to six interceptions. Prescott, albeit against different competition, has 14 touchdowns compared to two interceptions.

In a game expected to be a high-scoring affair, the defensive line, ironically, is the most critical position group for each team.

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