It’s almost time to turn the page to the Packers. But Before we do that, we witnessed another ridiculous, you-don’t-know-what’s-coming-next fourth quarter between the 49ers and Cowboys. If San Francisco wants to beat Green Bay, they can’t go scoreless in the fourth quarter.
The 49ers have a chance to beat anybody in the NFC thanks to the talent on the roster, how they’re constructed as a team and their style of play. Heading into Sunday, I felt like the winner of this game would represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
My tune has changed slightly, as that was premature. You’ll see why below. Last week, there were no “losers.” The same cannot be said this week, but that doesn’t take away from a handful of brilliant performances by the 49ers.
Winners - Arik Armstead
When you look at the stars on the roster, D.J. Jones calling Armstead the most important piece on the team comes off as hyperbole. Armstead had seven pressures and three sacks against the Rams a week ago. Against the Cowboys, he had six pressures and a sack on third down. That doesn’t count the plays where Armstead dominated as a run defender or Dallas's two false starts when Armstead was lined up over their offensive linemen.
Armstead changes the math for the 49ers. He can win his gap and the one next to him. He also eats double teams, which is why we see the linebackers running free behind him. When you know that’s the case, you can give help elsewhere to players who need it. He’s been on a stretch as a pass rusher where he has at least one quarterback hit on eight-straight games.
All of this is coming at a new position. A player that will forever be tied to DeForest Buckner’s hip, it took Armstead playing Buck’s position for him to produce like a superstar. Armstead has been unblockable and has transformed into one of the best interior linemen in the NFL.
I’m going to keep this short as it’s the same thing every week. Kyle Shanahan gives Deebo the ball. Deebo then runs through or around the person trying to tackle him. Those touches end in a first down or points for the offense.
The final third down of the game showed creativity from Shanahan and Mike McDaniel. The coaching staff should get credit for relying on their best player in the most critical situations and moving him around the formation so defenses can’t key on him.
Then again, I’m not sure how much credit I’d give the coaches for a player that averaged 8 yards per touch when everyone knows he’s getting the ball. Samuel is a superstar and unlike any player in the NFL.
Comparisons don’t exist for players doing what Deebo is doing now. That’s the biggest compliment you can give a person.
Ken Norton was the 49ers' assistant head coach and linebacker coach for one week in January of 2018. He bolted for Seattle to become the defensive coordinator, which opened the door for Shanahan to hire DeMeco Ryans.
Fast forward to today, and Seattle is moving on from Norton as defensive coordinator while Ryans is getting head coaching requests one year into the job.
You can make a strong case that the 49ers have the best defense left in the playoffs. Yes, they are wildly talented. But that shouldn’t discredit how Ryans has helped transform this unit.
DeMeco took what he learned from Robert Saleh and put a spin on Saleh’s scheme that has paid immense dividends. Dak Prescott is arguably a top-5 quarterback in the NFL. Dallas, while playing against a defense without its two best players when it counted, mustered only 5.9 yards per attempt on offense. Prescott was sacked five times and had a QBR of 27.
Ryans trusts his cornerbacks, which has opened up the playbook more. DeMeco broke a couple of tendencies, sometimes mixing man and zone, other times dropping a defensive lineman in coverage. We saw the 49ers confuse Dak, which is a big reason for the five sacks.
There aren’t enough positive things I can say about DeMeco. To a man, I’ve never heard players gush about a coach the way they do about Ryans. They are head over heels for him and, based on the results, you can see why.
Losers - Special teams
We just talked about the special teams. I know it. You know it. Shanahan knows it. My daughter does, too. They’re a mess. The worst part about it is that you can see everything unfolding as it happens.
I would put my best players on the field for special teams. It’s the Divisional round. Here’s how Shanahan’s conversation with Samuel should go: “I know we give you the ball all of the time, and there’s a lot on your plate. But we need to win, and you’re our best player. So go return this kick, please.”
On the punt and kickoff team, pull the players who can’t tackle and put your starters on each unit. You simply cannot risk giving up field position. It’d be one thing if these issues hadn’t popped up in a while, but it’s every game. Something has to change.
Jimmy sustained a shoulder injury as he was driven into the ground on a second-quarter sack Sunday. Rumors are circling the internet, albeit from people who are not credible, that Garoppolo’s injury is worse than the team is leading on.
Jimmy is the ultimate competitor, and for him to continue to fight through injuries says a lot about the person.
Unfortunately, the quarterback needs to execute, and that didn’t happen. Brandon Aiyuk probably eclipses 100 receiving yards for the second game in a row had Garoppolo hit him on third down. At worst, the 49ers get points out of the drive. Instead, the ball is overthrown by about ten yards, and the Niners punt.
There was a throw underneath where the Cowboys batted the ball down. Had the first defender not touched the pass, the second defender might’ve intercepted it. The third defender that was guarding Trent Sheffield was in a position to make a play on the pass. The result was an incompletion, but the throw was into triple coverage.
Sure enough, later in the game, Garoppolo sails a pass that turns into an interception. It’s difficult to give credit for routine plays when the misses are so egregious and lead to monumental swings in the game. The mistakes compound when Garoppolo has to hold the ball. Thanks to a double-digit lead, the 49ers overcame the turnover.
With Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady standing in the way of a Super Bowl, “Bad Jimmy” can’t afford to show his face.
Winners - The cornerbacks
I thought Emmanuel Moseley and Ambry Thomas were lights out against the Rams. They were better against the Cowboys. The non-targeted plays generally tell a bigger story than the plays we see them. CeeDee Lamb finished with one catch for 21 yards, while Amari Cooper had six receptions for 64 yards, with 20 of those coming against K’Waun Williams.
Thomas allowed two receptions for 24 yards and broke up a pass thanks to being aggressive. His confidence is growing before our eyes, and it’s a beauty to watch. Thomas is figuring out what he can and can’t get away with in coverage.
Then, there’s Moseley, the team’s top corner.
Moseley missed a tackle, which led to an 18-yard gain. Outside of that play, Moseley and Thomas were stout against the run. Moseley led the team with ten solo tackles. No other player had more than three. In coverage, he’s always in position.
I mentioned above how Ryans was spectacular at mixing up the looks defensively. You can’t put your cornerbacks in “cloud” coverage — think Cover 2, where they’re designed to defend short routes — if they cannot tackle. Most offenses design their running plays to get their back 1-on-1 with a cornerback.
Thomas and Moseley come flying in on running plays, which often goes unnoticed with San Francisco’s awesome front-7. Two games in a row now where I felt the cornerbacks not only held their own but won the matchup.
Davante Adams is next, and there isn’t a more challenging player to defend 1-on-1 if you’re a cornerback.
Trent Williams showed his value in this game. There were a few carries from Elijah Mitchell and Deebo where Williams made difficult blocks look routine, allowing the ball-carrier extra yards.
Speaking of Mitchell, he continues to turn negative runs into positive gains. The 49ers don’t go 6-for-13 without Mitchell breaking tackles.
Aiyuk was quietly a star on Sunday. He had a holding call, but he also sprung Mitchell on his first touchdown. The offense struggled to block the Cowboys defender setting the edge. They failed with Deebo, Charlier Woerner, and Trent Sheffield attempting to block. Aiyuk was the only player to handle his assignment.
Daniel Brunskill and Tom Compton continue to make mistakes at the worst possible times. Jimmy deserves credit for masking some of their issues, but I’m not sure how much longer the Niners can get away with them.
On defense, I could name every player a winner. The depth along the line and ability to overcome the loss of Nick Bosa and Fred Warner without really breaking stride is a testament to the coaching and the talent.
We’ll have updates on injuries later today since the game is on Saturday.