Overall, it was the cleanest game that the 49ers had played on all three facets of the field, which head coach Kyle Shanahan acknowledged after the game, leading to their biggest point differential of the season, despite the presumed tougher opponent.
“I thought that was our best complete game, with all three phases,” Shanahan said after the game. “I thought our defense was amazing today, going against some real good players and a good offense there. I knew that was going to be a challenge and those guys were unbelievable. I thought it was their best game yet.”
Of course, the offense gets their praises for dropping a season-high 42 points, consistently scoring while taking advantage of every single red zone opportunity.
However, the defense strung together arguably their best performance of the year against an opponent that had dropped at least 30 points in three of their four games leading up to Week 5.
The pass rush got to Dak Prescott five times, while recording 19 pressures overall on 29 total dropbacks, with defensive end Nick Bosa leading the way with seven pressures.
However, what really stood out to me was the team’s coverage ability, which led to some extended plays and opportunities for the 49ers defense to get home to the quarterback.
Coming into the game, the Dallas Cowboys had shifted their offensive identity from last season, moving on from offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and his more downfield approach to a more balanced attack that involved getting the ball out quickly.
The Cowboys entered the game fifth in the NFL with a 48.6 rushing play percentage, while quarterback Dak Prescott improved his time to throw from 2.72 seconds in 2022 to 2.43 seconds in 2023, which ranked fourth in the league.
As a result, his completion percentage improved to 71.3 percent, which would be the best rate of his career, although his average depth of target dropped to 6.2, far lower than his 2022 number of 8.2, as the goal for the Cowboys offensively was playing the space game.
So, coming into the game, it was understood that the 49ers would have to tackle well in space, a strength of the defense, as the Cowboys would look to neutralize the defensive line.
That placed a bigger emphasis on the cornerbacks in press coverage, as they'd have to lock up closer to the line of scrimmage to avoid giving up the short yardage plays that would allow the Cowboys to roll down the field.
And, that’s exactly what they did for the most part.
Prescott’s time to throw in Week 5 was much longer than his early season number of 2.43 seconds, as that number ballooned to 2.74 seconds against the 49ers, meaning the quarterback was not seeing the quick passing opportunities that he’d seen over the first four weeks.
Now, Charvarius Ward did Charvarius Ward-esque things, recording an impressive pass breakup, while holding his ground in man coverage on his side of the field.
But, the player who really impressed me was third-year cornerback Deommodore Lenoir, who has slowly evolved into a respectable starting cornerback for the 49ers.
Lenoir’s role has flip-flopped early in the year, as the 49ers' corner has moved between the outside and the nickel, due to the team’s inconsistencies at their third cornerback spot.
But, he has primarily played on the outside recently, and has looked the part, especially in man coverage.
Through the first five weeks of the season, Lenoir has looked solid on the film in coverage, giving up a few major plays, as well as a team-high three defensive penalties in the air, but being a positive impact player for the 49ers.
Looking at the numbers, Lenoir has a pair of pass breakups and an interception to begin the season, but the most astounding number is in regard to his passer rating allowed.
Overall, Lenoir has allowed an above-average 77.4 passer rating allowed on the season, which ranks just behind Ward’s 66.2 number.
For reference, the average passer rating in the NFL this season stands at 91.1.
However, in man coverage, Lenoir is in the top-five for passer rating allowed (min. 30 coverage snaps), showcasing the improvements he’s made as a man-corner.
Now, I’m not pushing the agenda that Lenoir is a top-five cornerback in the NFL, but the 49ers came into the season with full trust in two of their corners, and it seems they’ve made a solid decision thus far.
To add fuel to the fire, Lenoir has filled in very well against the run, recording six run stops through the first five weeks, good for second on the team, while securing all 33 of his tackle opportunities thus far.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan has noted the progression from Lenoir, which he believes started last season and has carried over into 2023 up until his potential best game of the year against the Cowboys.
“I think Demo’s [CB Deommodore Lenoir] been huge for us, man,” Shanahan said. “I thought it started that way last year. The way he finished last season, the second half I thought he was playing at [an] extremely high level. He took that into the offseason, he’s continued it this year. I think his play’s been very good and I think last night might’ve been his best game of the year so far.”
Lenoir does need to improve on go-balls, which have been his kryptonite at times over his career, but the cornerback understands the complementary relationship between the defensive backs and the pass rush that minimizes those opportunities of coverage lapses.
“The rush complements the coverage and the coverage complements the rush, but today we were all clicking,” Lenoir said after the win Sunday. “So, when you see a defense like that with all these special players it looks scary.”
Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks’s adjustments
Coming into the season, another major question was the incorporation of new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, a coach known to blitz, with the team’s defense.
After some ups and downs, it appears that Wilks has started to settle in, and it’s noted by his fellow coaches.
“Yeah, Steve’s such a good coordinator and he has been doing this for so long that Steve knows what he’s doing,” Shanahan said on Monday. “It is more getting used to our guys and how to do what he loves doing with our group. And that’s always a challenge for our coordinators. Each year is different. It is for me, it is for him because what you want to do depends on how your players are.”
“Steve being the new guy here, each game, I think he picks up on that more and more. I’ve loved how he’s been. I think each game he gets stronger and better at it and not just better at it, but just how to use our scheme with our guys. He’s mixed up a ton of stuff and thought we did a little bit more man yesterday.”
A part of Wilks’s weekly preparation is working hands-on with the defensive backs, and it appeared that being more physical in man coverage was the gameplan for the 49ers on Sunday.
That made sense, given Dallas’s desire to get the ball out quickly, and the gameplan was executed to fruition as the Cowboys couldn't get much going overall.
“The way the secondary was ready, that starts with him and [defensive backs coach Daniel] Bullocks because that’s the area that they focus on the most,” Shanahan said. “Those guys were so aggressive in their coverages, which allows us to have a better pass rush and even to have that tight man coverage at the end where DeMo had that slant, and it ended up causing that pick with the tip. I was real impressed with their preparation and then how it looked on film.”
After putting this game on film, Lenoir expects this level of play to be the standard every week for the 49ers, even joking that the aim for the team is five turnovers next week after generating four against the Cowboys.
“Oh yeah. This is standard. We are always looking to get better,” Lenoir said after the game. “We had four turnovers today and next week we are probably looking for five. So, we are always looking for room to get better.”
At the moment, the 49ers are rolling at an extremely high level on both sides of the field, with the ascendance of Lenoir being a welcome addition to the defense.
Now, Lenoir doesn't have to be elite, given the 49ers’ ability at all three levels of their defense, but it’s a good sign that the coaching staff has trust in their starting cornerback, and he’s starting to pay it back with consistent production.