Yesterday, I wrote about how the 49ers' defense stepped up in a huge way to help propel the 49ers to a victory in Dallas. Now, I’m going to take some time to show why the offense deserves a lot of credit for how they came out and set the tone early in this game, playing a physical brand of football that wore down the Cowboys defense over the course of a game that saw the 49ers run the ball 38 times for 169 yards.
It all started with a near-perfect opening drive that saw the 49ers go 75 yards on seven plays, to jump out to an early 7-0 lead. Six of those seven plays resulted in a first down or a touchdown, and the only real blemish was a carry by Deebo Samuel that was stopped for a short gain (something we wouldn’t hear very often in this game). They ran the ball four times for 27 yards on this drive, mixing in a couple of carries for Samuel as well.
Additionally, Jimmy Garoppolo started this game hot , completing all three of his passing attempts for 43 yards, including a 17-yard completion to Travis Benjamin, which happened to be the receiver's first reception of the year. Again, the ball was spread out well on this drive, as all three completions went to a different receiver, and four different skill position players recorded a touch on this drive.
I place so much emphasis on this opening drive because of the statement it made. It showed the Cowboys that it doesn’t matter whose stadium it is. The 49ers are a team who aren’t afraid to come out in a big game and punch their opponent in the mouth. It established that the 49ers were going to play this game on their terms and force the Cowboys to adapt to playing a style of football they were not comfortable with.
Rookie running back Elijah Mitchell continued his impressive rookie campaign, rushing for 96 yards on 27 carries. What really stands out is that 85 of those 96 yards came after contact, as Mitchell repeatedly broke through tackles and made the Cowboys fight tooth and nail for every single stop. If you only counted Mitchell’s yards after contact, he still would have more rushing yards than any other player during Wild Card weekend (Josh Jacobs was second in rushing yards during the wild card round with 83).
Deebo Samuel got in on the action in the running game as well, recording 10 carries for 72 yards, including a 26-yard touchdown run that put the 49ers up 23-7 in the 3rd quarter. This season, it was the fourth time that Samuel finished a game with an average yard per carry of at least 7.2 yards and a touchdown. Samuel continues to be a nightmare for opposing defenses, with no real answer for his unique blend of vision and physicality. Samuel also recorded 3 catches for 38 yards, with two of those catches going for first downs and gains of 15+ yards.
As good as Samuel was, Brandon Aiyuk was actually the one who finished as this game’s leading wide receiver. Aiyuk caught 5 passes for 66 yards, with 3 of those receptions going for a first down and the other two both going for 9 yards apiece. Aiyuk has been on fire as of late, establishing himself as an invaluable weapon on this offense to close this season out.
In Aiyuk’s first 10 games, he recorded 22 receptions for 256 yards and 2 touchdowns. In the 9 games since then, Aiyuk’s production has skyrocketed, as he has recorded 39 receptions for 636 yards and 3 touchdowns. Remember that odd stretch of games where everyone was questioning Aiyuk’s lack of usage? Those days are long gone, as Aiyuk has proved invaluable to this offense, cementing himself alongside of an explosive receiving group led by Samuel and George Kittle.
My favorite play from Aiyuk in this game wasn’t a catch, it was actually the block he had on Cowboys star edge rusher/linebacker Micah Parsons, a block that cleared the path for Elijah Mitchell to glide into the end zone untouched for his first score of the game. The 49ers receivers as a unit present major problems for opposing defenses when they are asked to run block, and Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings both had some extremely important blocks in this game.
Speaking of Jennings, he has become an indispensable contributor on this offense. Jennings has 27 receptions this season, and 23 have gone for a first down or a touchdown. At 6’3, Jennings gives the 49ers wide receiver room a weapon with great size, something they have lacked in recent years. He and Garoppolo have developed quite the rapport as well, as the chemistry between the two is readily apparent every time they hook up to make a play in a big spot.
The 49ers' offensive line also showed up in a big way in this game. They didn’t allow a single sack to a very formidable Cowboys pass rush and looked dominant in the run game to boot. Trent Williams is still having one of the best seasons we have ever seen from an offensive lineman, and Tom Compton continues to fill in admirably at the right tackle spot in place of starter Mike McGlinchey.
As a unit, they did a great job establishing a certain level of physicality in the trenches from the jump. On numerous occasions, they appeared to bait the Cowboys' defense into a handful of egregious defensive holding penalties on run plays that were likely driven by the frustration of being manhandled by a unit that was in the process of running for 169 yards on them.
My biggest takeaway from this game was how good center Alex Mack looked in pass protection, as he didn’t allow a single pressure in this game. This is the fourth game in a row that Mack didn’t allow a pressure, and the 9th time this season that he accomplished that feat. The stability that Mack has provided on the interior of the offensive line has been invaluable, as this was the first time the 49ers had the same center start every single regular-season game since 2017 when Daniel Kilgore did it.
Next up for the 49ers is a date with the Green Bay Packers, where they will square off at Lambeau field in near sub-zero temperatures with a trip to the NFC Championship Game on the line. The 49ers' best shot at pulling off the upset will be dependent on how physical they are able to be upfront, and well, we all saw what happened last time these teams met in a playoff game that featured a 49er running game operating at a high level.
One more note to close this out, with their victory over the Cowboys, the 49ers now improve to 23-1 since the start of 2019 when they run the ball 30 or more times in a game.