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A depleted 49ers defense delivers a performance for the ages in Dallas

It was indeed a team performance

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

HOW ‘BOUT THEM… 49ers? In the first playoff meeting in over 25 years between these two storied rivals, the 49ers simply overmatched the Cowboys in Dallas to set up a date with the Packers in the divisional round.

In typical 49ers fashion, it went down to the wire, with no lack of suspense to close out this game. But, as gut-wrenching as the final minutes were, the 49ers, and the defense, in particular, stood tall in the game’s biggest moments.

The Cowboys came into this game boasting the leagues' number one offense, ranking first in points per game (31.2) as well as yards per game (407). The 49ers' defense held them to just 17, including just 7 through the first 3 quarters of this game.

The Cowboys were simply never able to get into a comfortable rhythm in this game, only scoring on 3/11 possessions in this game, with one of those Dallas scoring drives beginning on the 49ers' 28-yard line following an interception.

The 49ers recorded 22 pressures as a team in Dallas, the most they’ve had in any game this season. While the number itself is impressive, how they reached that number is far more impressive to me.

It was an extremely balanced attack, as seven different 49ers players recorded multiple pressures in this game, with four players recording 4+ pressures in this game as well. They pressured Dallas on an astounding 45.8% of their dropbacks.

From the opening drive (which saw Nick Bosa and Samson Ebukam combine to sack Dak Prescott on the first 3rd down of the game), the 49ers' defense was able to set a tone of physicality and play this football game on their terms.

Six different 49ers players combined to sack Prescott five times in this game while also piling up an eye-popping 14 QB hits as well during this contest.

I can’t recall ever watching another game that Prescott played in where he looked so flustered and uncomfortable standing in the pocket. This disruptive play by the 49ers' defense thwarted one of the most potent offensive attacks in the league, and what made that accomplishment even more impressive was how they were able to do it without some of their biggest playmakers on defense for large chunks of this game.

Bosa exited the game with a concussion right before halftime and did NOT return for a single snap in the entire second half. When he was ruled out, it sent a sinking feeling into the stomach’s of many a 49ers fan, but little did they know that the remaining players on the 49ers defensive line were about to rise to the occasion and rely on their incredible strength in numbers to repeatedly deliver in the clutch in the biggest game of the season to date.

Arik Armstead continued his recent streak of dominance, recording 6 pressures and a sack in this game, just a week after a 3 sack performance in week 18. In back to back must-win games with the season on the line, Armstead has been one of the best players on the field on either side of the ball for the 49ers, recording 10+ pressures, and DJ Jones got in on the sack party in this one as well, as he and Armstead have both recorded a sack in each of the last two games.

The pressure the 49ers were able to generate up the middle, in large part because of Armstead and Jones, proved invaluable in this game. But it wasn’t just the interior that stepped up. With Bosa out for the entire second half, someone was going to have to rise to the occasion in a big way, and the player who ended up doing so most likely came as a surprise to many who were watching.

Charles Omenihu, who was acquired just prior to the trade deadline this season, had 6 pressures and 2 sacks in this game. Omenihu appeared in 9 games for the 49ers prior to this one, and while he certainly had an impact, he had yet to record a sack since joining the team. In this game, he not only left his mark with his tenacious ability to get after the quarterback, but he also did so against one of the best left tackles in all of football in Tyron Smith.

Smith had only allowed 11 pressures during the entire regular season. He allowed SEVEN against the 49ers in this game alone. With Bosa out for a large chunk of this game, guys like Omenihu and Jordan Willis came in and not only stepped up to the occasion but rose above and beyond to make a lasting impact on the 49ers' biggest win of the season. Willis had 3 pressures himself, including a key one that forced an errant throw from Prescott that led to an interception by K’Waun Williams deep inside Dallas territory.

Surprisingly superb secondary

The defensive line wasn’t alone in this one either, as there is so much credit to be had for the way the linebackers and secondary delivered in this game as well. Emmanuel Moseley and Ambry Thomas played a CLEAN game, not getting flagged a single time for pass interference against an electric Cowboys receiving corps that led the league in pass interference penalties drawn. Williams had that big interception that immediately led to a 49ers touchdown on the very first play after the offense took the field following it.

Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt continued to show off their incredible value on the back end, limiting the ability of the Dallas offense to create much of anything downfield. The linebacking group stepped up and held the Cowboys' electric rushing duo of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard to under three yards per carry in this game. All in all, this was an incredible team effort that had meaningful contributions from 15+ different players over the course of this game.

To me, this is even more remarkable when you consider how pressure-packed the end of this football game was, with this defense needing to get MULTIPLE stops to close this out without arguably their two best players on defense (Warner left in the fourth quarter with what is being reported as an ankle injury). To step up the way that they did in crunch time without two bonafide superstar defenders is something that cannot go unnoticed.

All season this defense has been consistently among the best in the entire NFL, and while Bosa and Warner are the household names that garner a lions share of the recognition (rightfully so, both are phenomenal players) the simple fact of the matter is that this defense’s depth and ability to rely on strength in numbers is what makes them so dangerous, certainly far more than the ELITE top-end talent that they happen to possess as well.

Arik Armstead, DJ Jones, Charles Omenihu, Kevin Givens, Jordan Willis, Kentavius Street, Samson Ebukam, Azeez-Al Shaair, Dre Greenlaw, Jimmie Ward, Jaquiski Tartt, Ambry Thomas, Emmanuel Moseley, and K’Waun Williams.

ALL of these players deserve a game ball for not only the way they stepped up to the plate in this game but for the way their under-the-radar contributions all season have propelled the 49ers into a top 5 defensive ranking. Any defense is obviously much better with Bosa and Warner on the field, but to come out when the chips are down and DOMINATE the best offense in the league without both is a testament to just how special this group is from top to bottom.

I’d also like to give DeMeco Ryans his credit for not only calling a great game in Dallas but for the way he delivered all season long. Ryans' ability to adapt and go against the tendency to keep opposing offenses off-balance has been fascinating to watch. No play embodied this more than the zero blitz Ryans called on a pivotal 4th & 11 in the fourth quarter in Dallas.

To call that blitz at that moment takes some serious stones, and Ryans displayed a level of guts and intelligence on that call that truly leaves you with the utmost confidence that no matter the situation and no matter the opponent, he will find a way to make life hard for opposing offenses. (Delivering a top 3 defense without a pair of starting cornerbacks for essentially the entire season is flat out baffling. Ryans has been a STUD all season).

So as the 49ers prepare to take on Green Bay in the divisional round, take a moment to appreciate what this 49ers defense was able to accomplish without its two defensive superstars in Dallas. This is a unit that is as healthy as it has been since week one and that appears to be firing on all cylinders at just the right time. The ability to go 15-16 deep in a game with quality players is invaluable, and we are seeing that depth pay dividends in a big way.

With how much the 49ers defense has improved since they met the Packers way back in week 3, I cannot wait to see the chess match we are about to witness between them and one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time in Aaron Rodgers.