The toughest test of the early NFL schedule is upon us. Despite back-to-back seasons of ending the Cowboys' Super Bowl hopes, does San Francisco still hold the advantage? Taking a look at the Dallas roster, and it might not be as easy as we hope.
SF O SKILL (QB/WR) vs. DAL SECONDARY
The loss of Trevon Diggs looms large over the entire Dallas defense. Diggs has received criticism in the past for his risky play style that left the secondary liable to give up big passing plays. But he made up for many of his mistakes by grabbing more interceptions than any other player in the league over the last three seasons.
With Diggs on the injured reserve, second-year pro DaRon Bland has stepped into the starting cornerback spot opposite of offseason acquisition Stephon Gilmore. Bland has had an excellent start to this season, holding opponents to a 34.5 passer rating when targeted and his three interceptions are tied for the lead league.
Although Gilmore is long in the tooth, he’s still one of the most instinctual cornerbacks in the league and has a defensive player of the year award on his belt. He’s had an up-and-down four game stretch in his first season in Dallas and could be a spot that Kyle Shanahan looks to attack in the passing game.
I do think San Francisco has the advantage against this secondary, despite the Cowboys owning the second-highest graded coverage unit per PFF. Brandon Aiyuk has established himself as a top-tier WR1 this season and is a mismatch for both of Dallas’ corners.
In the one game Aiyuk didn’t play, Deebo Samuel stepped up and had over 100 yards receiving. Trying to stop both of these guys, especially when Purdy is on target, is not an easy task for 60 minutes.
SF O COMBO (RB/TE) vs. DAL 2ND LEVEL DEFENDERS
Micah Parsons has moved into a full-time role as an edge rusher this season, meaning the Dallas’ linebacking corps is without one of the rangiest defenders in the league. That’s good news for San Francisco’s combo players who should be able to feast on the starting duo of Leighton Vander Esch and Damone Clark.
Despite being two of the strongest tackling linebackers, the Cowboys defense is still susceptible against the run. They’ve allowed opponents to go for 4.6 yards per carry this year, which is the 6th-worst mark in the league.
Vander Esch has historically been subpar in coverage and doesn’t possess the mobility to keep up with guys like Kittle and McCaffrey. In last year’s divisional round matchup, those two combined for 11 catches and 117 yards.
This feels like it could be another big game for George Kittle. Shanahan should feel confident getting Kittle in one-on-one opportunities with the Cowboys linebackers or safeties. That unit is 27th in DVOA at defending passes over the middle.
Malik Hooker is a decent deep middle defender but Jayron Kearse has struggled in the first quarter of the year, landing him as the lowest graded (52.8 overall, 55.3 in coverage) defender on the team.
SF O LINE vs. DAL D LINE
We saw what a dominant edge defender can do to this 49ers offensive line in Week 1 when T.J. Watt registered three sacks. I’m not saying that means San Francisco will win or lose this game because of it, but there is reason for concern matching up with the Dallas pass rush.
Micah Parsons is a problem, and Shanahan and co. would be wise to give special attention to handling the Penn State product with more than one blocker. Parsons is only behind Myles Garrett and Nick Bosa among all edge players in the league in pass rush grade through four weeks.
To make matters more difficult, opposite of Parsons is Demarcus Lawrence, who is the second highest graded edge defender overall behind Nick Bosa. His 93.1 run defense grade tops the position. Lawrence is the unsung hero of this defense and will make an impact on this game. For San Francisco to find success on the ground like other teams have against Dallas, they may have better luck running between the tackles.
We will see a committee of defensive interior linemen from the Cowboys, which the 49ers should be able to handle. Osa Odighizuwa is the alpha of this group and has steadily improved over his first three seasons.
Dallas spent their first round pick on Michigan nose tackle Mazi Smith to beef up the unit, but Smith has yet to find his footing, posting a paltry 43.3 run defense grade. How Shanahan adjusts his outside zone scheme to flow inside more will be worth watching Sunday night.
DAL O LINE vs. SF D LINE
There are two Hall of Famers on this Dallas offensive line, but neither are the players they once were. LT Tyron Smith (knee) and RG Zack Martin (groin) are still two of the best at their respective positions when healthy, but both have missed time this season already with injuries and are listed as Questionable for this game.
In fact, the Cowboys highest graded offensive player to date is second-year guard Tyler Smith, but he has only been active for half their games so far (hamstring). Center Tyler Biadasz (hamstring) missed the Cardinals game due to injury as well.
That’s kind of the story for this unit. They are often a bit make-shift due to the lingering health concerns of their starters, and to their credit, still find ways to be productive. ESPN marks the group as the 4th highest in their Run Block Win Rate metric this year.
If the Niners plan on controlling this game like they have through the first four contests, it will be because of their ability to win in the trenches against the Dallas offense. Terence Steele will lock up the right tackle spot, but if Smith and Martin can’t go, Nick Bosa, Javon Hargrave and the other menaces along the front four will have a field day against backups Chuma Edoga (T) and T.J. Bass (G).
DAL O COMBO vs SF 2ND LEVEL DEFENDERS
The Cowboys running back, and tight end groups look a bit different from a year ago. Veterans Ezekiel Elliott and Dalton Schultz were given the boot, and overall, each unit has had an influx of youth. Expect to see this offense mix things up with their personnel groupings as these players’ replacements will be used in a variety of ways.
have to respect how mike mccarthy is making opposing defenses have to prepare for just about every offensive personnel you can run— Tej Seth (@tejfbanalytics) October 4, 2023
cowboys have use 11 personnel the 25th most but use everything between 02 to 23 at least 1% of the time pic.twitter.com/axVgS5F31s
There were big expectations for RB Tony Pollard to outperform the aging Elliott, but he hasn’t quite had the breakout game yet this year. His 311 rushing yards are good for fifth in the league, but he’s only managed 4.3 yards per attempt and hasn’t scored since week one. His impact in the passing game has been minimal.
Jake Ferguson is making the most out of the starting tight end opportunity and has found solid chemistry with Dak Prescott, seeing the second most targets on the team. Peyton Hendershot and rookie Luke Schoonmaker will get snaps too, but Ferguson is the only one worth monitoring in this game.
Of course, San Francisco still employs an absolute game changer at middle linebacker and when he isn’t blanketing this combo group, he may just run the seam with the Cowboys best receiver.
DAL O SKILL vs. SF SECONDARY
Dak Prescott in the last two meetings with San Francisco:
- 57.5% completion percentage
- 2 TDs, 3 INTs
- 42.8 QBR
- 66.5 Passer Rating
Prescott hasn’t figured this defense out yet and although the games have been close, it’s hard to say he is the reason for the one-score results. Prescott has done a better job this season of limiting interceptions and turnover-worthy throws, but he also hasn’t played a defense on par with San Francisco’s yet.
Ceedee Lamb is a star receiver. Last year, he outplayed the 49ers cornerbacks, hauling in 10 catches for 117 yards. What’s a bit worrisome is that the game last January featured Noah Brown and T.Y. Hilton starting alongside Lamb. This year it’s a much better group of skill players including the underrated Brandin Cooks and veteran Michael Gallup.
The 49ers secondary should be on notice that this will be a greater test than any they’ve seen since the NFC Championship game and cannot take this receiving group lightly. The slight edge goes to San Francisco due to Prescott’s history against the Niners and propensity for turning the ball over, especially when trailing. However, with the change in play calling, this offense has been much more efficient and could find success against Wilks’ bend-not-break defense.