The 49ers are set to face off against the Dallas Cowboys in the first round of this year’s playoffs. While San Francisco remains an underdog as they gear up for the Wild Card Round, the Cowboys are far from a perfect team. Postseason matchups almost always come down to which teams can capitalize on their opponents’ weaknesses. Despite the Cowboys’ exciting offense, their defense has had one glaring problem all season: surrendering big plays.
On the surface, the Cowboys’ defense has posted solid to impressive numbers across the board. They have held opposing passers to the third-worst passer rating in the NFL while allowing just the 16th-most rushing yards in the league this season. However, their unit has thrived on a boom-or-bust formula.
Dallas’ secondary is one of the most aggressive in the league playing the ball. For that reason, the Cowboys have racked up a league-leading 26 interceptions and allowed just a 59.5% completion percentage (third-best in the NFL). With that said, that aggressiveness has left the door open for plenty of big plays.
The Cowboys' defense has allowed 10.1% of opposing pass attempts to result in 20+ yard completions, the sixth-worst rate in the league. Making matters even worse, only two other teams in the NFL (Ravens and Packers) have allowed more 40+ yard completions.
The emergence of rookie Micah Parsons as an elite pass rusher to pair with Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence has only improved the Cowboys' defense. Yet, even with all that talent, the Cowboys only have the 15th-best sack rate in the NFL because defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has struggled to get consistent production from Dallas’ interior defensive line. Not only has that limited their pass rush, but it’s also left them prone to big plays on the ground.
Run plays do not result in large gains at the same rate as pass plays, but the Cowboys still surrendered 20+ yard runs at the second-worst rate in the league. Dallas ranks slightly better in yards per carry allowed (22nd), but both rankings obviously cause concern.
Making matters worse for the Cowboys, the 49ers' offense has been one of the best in the league at generating big plays this season. Even without an elite quarterback, the 49ers’ offense has made 20+ yard completions on a higher percentage of their throws (12.3%) than any other team in the league.
Part of San Francisco’s success is driven by the low rate that they throw. Only three other teams in the NFL (Eagles, Titans, and Saints) have called designed runs at a higher rate this season. Yet, even with that predictability, the 49ers still had the 10th-best rate of rushing attempts that resulted in at least 20-yard gains as well.
As with any football game, the NFL playoffs tend to swing on big plays. The Cowboys’ offense, led by Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper, Ezekiel Elliot, and Michael Gallup, is well known for its explosive capabilities. However, the 49ers’ offense has been one of the most efficient offenses at netting large gains. Given Dallas’ defensive struggles limiting big plays, the 49ers seem like a dangerous matchup for the NFC East champs.