The San Francisco 49ers kept their season going with a 23-17 win over the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Wild Card Round. The Niners started hot and almost put the game out of reach early, but it would not be a 49ers game this season without some added stress. Still, before we move on to their matchup against the Green Bay Packers next weekend, let's take a look at how each position group contributed to the victory:
Jimmy Garoppolo was very good in the first half, putting the Niners in a great position early. Had Shanahan been more aggressive, there's a chance San Francisco could have solidified the victory even sooner and saved everyone a lot of stress. However, Dallas stayed within striking distance, and Garoppolo reverted to the player that made fans call for Trey Lance.
He threw a horrible interception on the first drive of the fourth quarter, and he made several dangerous throws in the second half. He also airmailed a wide-open Brandon Aiyuk on what could have been a huge third-down conversion and did not wait for Trent Williams to get set on fourth-and-inches, which prompted a flag that led Shanahan to punt and give Dallas' offense one more shot.
Running backs: A-
Elijah Mitchell again did not dominate the game, but he received 27 carries and bashed through contact for most of his 96 yards and touchdown. Most important of all, he did not fumble. With Garoppolo's turnover-prone tendencies, any major misstep from Mitchell could have cost San Francisco the game.
Tight ends: C+
George Kittle is perfectly content and impactful as a decoy and blocker. With that said, Kittle nearly committed a costly fumble in the second half after a low throw from Garoppolo. The pass hit the ground, negating the fumble, but it could have easily been a pivotal moment in a Cowboys comeback had Kittle actually caught the pass.
Quirky 49ers stat: After another quiet receiving day from George Kittle, the 49ers have now gone four consecutive games without a tight end recording at least 30 yards receiving for the first time since Weeks 3-6 in 2015, when Vernon Davis missed two games with an injury.— Marc Delucchi (@maddelucchi) January 17, 2022
If the 49ers pull off an upset next week in Green Bay, it sure feels like Kittle is due for a big game.
Wide receivers: A+
Deebo Samuel caught all three of his targets for 38 receiving yards, but he continued his recent trend of doing his most considerable damage out of the backfield. Samuel took his 10 carries for 72 yards and a touchdown, including the third-down reverse that nearly sealed the game.
With that said, do not let Samuel's performance overshadow Brandon Aiyuk, who embarrassed First-Team All-Pro cornerback Trevon Diggs on route after route. Aiyuk led the Niners with five receptions for 66 yards, and the lone incompletion intended for Aiyuk would have probably gone for 35 yards or more if Garoppolo had not overthrown him.
Jauan Jennings also continued hauling in big third-down catches, racking up 29 receiving yards on three receptions.
Offensive line: B+
In a switch for the Niners offensive line, they were dominant in pass protection against the Cowboys' talented edge rushers but struggled to create big holes in the run game after their first few drives. Garoppolo was never sacked, and the 49ers'offensive line actually drew more holding calls against the Cowboys' defensive line than they committed.
Defensive line: A+
The 49ers' defensive line was fantastic in the first half. However, it was hard to know what to expect from the Niners line when Nick Bosa had to leave the game after colliding with D.J. Jones. On top of Bosa's injury, edge rushers Jordan Willis and Samson Ebukam also had to leave the game at various points with injuries of their own. Yet even with that depleted depth, San Francisco's defensive line continued generating elite pressure.
Charles Omenihu has not made much of an impact since the 49ers acquired him from the Texans at this year's trade deadline. However, with Bosa sidelined, Omenihu delivered his best performance in a Niners uniform, recording three tackles, 1.5 sacks, and a forced fumble.
Arik Armstead was a force for the second consecutive game. Armstead had another dominating performance after crushing the Rams offensive line in Week 18, recording four tackles, a sack, and a tackle for loss. In total, the 49ers defensive line recorded five sacks, two tackles for loss, held the Cowboys' running backs to just 46 rushing yards, and pressured Dak Prescott all game.
Obviously, San Francisco's line will not be the same without Bosa if he has to miss extended time, but his absence was barely noticeable in the second half against the Cowboys.
Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, and Azeez Al-Shaair were reunited on the field until Warner injured his ankle in the fourth quarter. They all recorded five tackles, and Greenlaw added one tackle for loss. With Dallas' line unable to handle the 49ers front, the linebackers had plenty of room to operate and disrupted plenty of plays.
With that said, this was far from their best performance in pass coverage on the season. Cowboys tight end Dalton Schultz found success against Niners linebackers, catching 7 of his 8 targets for 89 receiving yards.
The 49ers defensive line got all the credit, but there were multiple coverage pressures and even sacks on Sunday. Dak Prescott rarely had an open receiver on his first read, and Cowboys receivers recorded receptions on just half of their 26 targets. Dallas' offense lost a dimension when Michael Gallup suffered a season-ending injury, but CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper, and Ced Wilson remain one of the best trios of receivers in the NFL.
Ambry Thomas might have been the 49ers' best corner, making it even more incredible how far he's come this season. Thomas recorded an early pass defended and, according to PFF, he surrendered just two catches for 24 yards on four targets.
K'Waun Williams' got beat by Cooper for the Cowboys' lone passing touchdown (and that play is the only reason I did not give this unit an A+), but Williams' made up for it with a huge interception in the third quarter.
Emmanuel Moseley probably surrendered the most yards of any member of the secondary, but he was not called for a penalty all game and never got beat deep. He also limited the Cowboys ability to break plays open, finishing with a game-high 10 solo tackles,
When things go well for the 49ers' defense, Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt are doing their jobs well. With Thomas, Moseley, and Williams finally providing consistent, trustworthy play at corner, Ward and Tartt have even more flexibility to roam. Ward's notoriously bad hands did pop up when he whiffed on an opportunity at an interception. Tartt nearly allowed a deep completion to Ced Wilson during a broken play in the fourth quarter, but otherwise, Ward and Tartt consistently executed what they were asked to do.
Special teams: F
Things could have been much worse if Robbie Gould did not step up in a big way. Gould was just 10-for-13 from beyond 40 yards this season and did not make a kick from more than 52-yards out. However, in the 49ers' biggest game of the season, he made both of his extra points and all three field goals, including a 52 and 53-yarder.
With that said, Josh Norman's catastrophic mistake on the Cowboys' fake punt and Mark Nzeocha's costly roughing the punter flag were two of the main reasons Dallas had a chance to come back. While Nzeocha needs to avoid committing the penalty, it was even more concerning based on the situation. Nzeocha was not the only 49ers rusher that made contact with Dallas’ punter. At that point in the game, there were zero reasons to be rushing the punter so aggressively on a fourth-and-forever.