It’s been over 700 days since 49ers’ tight end George Kittle vowed that he would return to the Super Bowl with a vengeance. Finally, while injuries derailed the 49ers’ futile efforts in 2020, Kittle and his team will have a chance to make good on his promise.
The path to the playoffs may not have been as straightforward for the San Francisco 49ers as it was for the Dallas Cowboys, but both marquee franchises have made it back to the postseason. The Cowboys (12-5) handily won the NFC East, while it took the 49ers (10-7) until overtime in the final week of the regular season to punch their playoff ticket.
There’s no better way for the 49ers to kick off their second playoff run under Kyle Shanahan than a wild-card weekend showdown against the Cowboys in Dallas. It’ll be a star-studded affair at AT&T Stadium, and here are my observations ahead of Sunday’s game.
- 49ers’ physical rushing attack matches up well against the Cowboys’ defense.
The Cowboys’ rushing defense will be under a microscope on Sunday, as they’ll look to slow down the likes of Elijah Mitchell and Deebo Samuel. Dan Quinn’s rushing defense is ranked 16th in DVOA, even though their overall defense is ranked in the Top-10.
Dallas’ run defense is also vulnerable to explosive plays, as they’ve given up 52 explosive run plays (runs of at least 10 yards) on the season. In addition, they give up explosive runs on 12 percent of opponent’s carries, which is 25th in the NFL.
Quinn’s unit has also given up 14 runs of at least 20 yards, which is the 3rd-worst in the NFL. On the flip side, the 49ers’ rushing offense has 53 explosive runs, which ranks 8th.
This season, Kyle Shanahan’s favorite play has been the toss play with Elijah Mitchell, with Kyle Juszczyk and George Kittle lead blocking for the rookie. These runs attack the edges of a defense, especially their corners.
When opponents rush to the edges against Dallas, they give up 6.9 yards per carry and have given up 22 runs of 10+ yards. To make matters worse, standout young corner Trevon Diggs is the second-worst run defender among all cornerbacks, per Pro Football Focus. So I’d imagine Shanahan will look to go right after the former Alabama corner in the run game.
With Trent Williams returning to the lineup, the 49ers will employ the two-highest run-blocking offensive tackles in Tom Compton and Williams on Sunday. There’s no better way to ease the pressure off of your quarterback in a road playoff game than an efficient rushing attack.
- Dak Prescott and Kellen Moore should look to challenge 49ers’ defense vertically
Despite outside criticism, San Francisco’s defense has been impressive under DeMeco Ryans. They currently rank seventh in defensive DVOA and fifth in weighted defensive DVOA, which takes into account the 49ers’ recent games more heavily. They’re second against the run and 16th against the pass, which matches this season's eye test.
The one area where the 49ers’ defense has been vulnerable is defending the deep pass (20+ air yards). They’re 30th in DVOA defending passes over 20+ air yards, compared to being a Top-3 defense when defending short passes or the run game.
On the other side, the Cowboys' offense has been highly explosive in the passing game, ranking fourth in the NFL with 63 completions of 20+ air yards. They haven’t been as explosive down the field since wideout Michael Gallup went down, but Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb should certainly scare Ryans and this secondary.
Rookie Ambry Thomas has developed well over the last month of the regular season but will have a tall order either covering Lamb or Cooper. Emmanuel Moseley’s return to the lineup last week was a welcome sight. Each of the two starting corners ended Week 18 with an interception and will look to continue that momentum on Sunday.
I’m not sure if Dallas’ offense can sustain drives against this stout 49ers’ defensive front, so their best chance to success will be connecting on big plays down the field.
- Jimmy Garoppolo has to — has to — protect the ball vs. Cowboys’ secondary
Cowboys’ cornerback Trevon Diggs has been praised for his league-leading 11 interceptions, but the entire Dallas defense has been splendid at taking the ball away from their opponents. They’re 2nd in the NFL with 0.175 turnovers forced per drive this season, with Diggs and rookie linebacker Micah Parsons accounting for a large majority of them.
When Garoppolo hasn’t thrown an interception this season, the 49ers are 7-0, when he does turn the ball over, they are 2-6. San Francisco was somehow able to overcome a two-interception game from Garoppolo against the Rams, but that might not be the case against the Cowboys.
Dallas’ defense has been much more boom-or-bust, really dependent on turnovers this season to sustain success. If Garoppolo can avoid a costly interception or fumble, it’ll go a long way to helping the 49ers advance to the Divisional Round.
- Which version of the Cowboys’ offense will show up on Sunday?
It’s really been a tale of two halves for Kellen Moore’s offense. From Weeks 1-6, the Cowboys’ offense was sixth in EPA per play and second in Success Rate. After Dak Prescott returned from his injury, the Cowboys’ offense has been 14th in EPA per play and 20th in Success Rate.
They’ve been volatile during the second half of the season, which is a large part of why head coach Mike McCarthy opted to keep his starters in a meaningless Week 18 game vs. Eagles’ backups.
Did the Cowboys find their mojo last week as they hung up a 50-burger on Philadelphia, or was it just an anomaly as a result of facing a familiar opponent?
- Can Kris Kocurek’s pass rush get home against a stout Cowboys’ offensive line?
While Nick Bosa was snubbed from the All-Pro teams this season, the 49ers’ pass rush has been nothing short of spectacular in the second half of this season. Throughout the season, Kocurek’s development has really started to pay dividends, as the likes of Arden Key, D.J. Jones, Samson Ebukam, and Arik Armstead have really come along.
The 49ers finished the season with 48 sacks — the same sack total they achieved in their dominant 2019 campaign. They finished fourth in adjusted sack rate, despite only having one player with double-digit sacks. San Francisco’s pass rush has really blossomed in the last month, with creative schemes designed by Ryans. The 49ers are still one of the lowest blitzing teams in the NFL but generate a ton of pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
The Cowboys’ offensive line — when healthy — is one of the best in the NFL, per PFF’s pass-blocking grade and ESPN’s pass-block win rate. They’re Top-10 in both metrics. Their strengths are with Tyron Smith and Zack Martin, while I’d argue that their weaknesses are with Tyler Biadasz and Connor Williams, along the interior.
A big way to help out a weak 49ers’ secondary is with a dominant pass rush, and it’ll start upfront for this defense on Sunday.
- George Kittle vs. Cowboys’ linebackers in coverage
While 49ers’ tight end George Kittle has been pretty quiet the last few weeks of the season, I fully expect him to have a resurgent performance on Sunday vs. Dallas. Cowboys’ defense ranks 17th in DVOA against tight ends and has struggled to cover them all season long.
Linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Keanu Neal have been a step slow in coverage, while safety Jayron Kearse returns from the COVID-19 list. Kearse has been the dedicated player on the Cowboys’ defense who has the responsibility of covering opposing tight ends.
With the Cowboys’ defensive strength in their secondary, I’d expect Kyle Shanahan to use Kittle as a receiver more in some passing situations against this suspect linebacking core.
Prediction: 49ers 27, Cowboys 21
I’ve spent the entire week digging deep into this playoff matchup and have come away thinking that it’s a bad matchup for Dallas. The Cowboys are 1-4 against 10-win teams in 2021 and lost to Kansas City, Las Vegas, and Arizona down the stretch of the season. The last 10-win team they beat was New England back in Week 6 in overtime.
Dallas has had a positive DVOA in 15 of their 17 games, meaning they’ve largely played well, but I still think they’ve had a tendency of beating up on bad teams and keeping it close against better competition.
I like the 49ers’ physical brand of football. I believe they have the advantage at every major position group except quarterback and cornerback. I think their rushing attack, rushing defense, and pass rush will be the difference in this game. I don’t expect AT&T Stadium to have much of a home-field advantage on Sunday, and all that bodes well for San Francisco.
Kyle Shanahan’s group has been playing in playoff games for the last three weeks, just scratching and clawing to get into the dance. They’re battle-tested and will be able to play “free” on Sunday, being the underdog on the road. I believe it’ll be a huge Elijah Mitchell, George Kittle, and Deebo Samuel game for the 49ers, and they’ll win this by one score. On to Green Bay.