1. How has the defense handled the loss of Trevon Diggs due to injury, both in personnel and scheme?
The injury occurred on the Thursday before the Arizona Cardinals game in Week 3, so the team had very little time to prepare for that game and it showed. They moved slot corner DaRon Bland outside to Diggs’ spot, and moved Jourdan Lewis into the slot position. Lewis was the starting slot corner before an injury sidelined him in 2022 and Bland took over the spot for the rest of the season.
Bland was so good in his rookie year filling in for Lewis that he kept the starting slot position and Lewis was relegated to backup. In that first game after the Diggs’ injury, there seemed to be some confusion and there were several busted coverages. They also seemed to involve the safeties more in outside coverage and that might have added to the confusion issue.
Last week they looked more like themselves with Bland on the outside and Lewis in the slot. Bland obviously had a huge game against the Patriots, and he is a ball-hawk in a similar vein to Diggs. The Cowboys like to play a lot of man coverage, and they still do that. Bland was playing it a little soft in Week 3, but seemed to get a better feel for it in Week 4. He has played on the outside before in 2022 for a few weeks when the Cowboys secondary was really banged up. The combination of Bland and Lewis leaves the Cowboys with competent defenders even without Diggs.
2. Dak Prescott led the league in interceptions thrown a year ago but has only turned the ball over once this season. What do you think has been the biggest difference in Prescott’s game from 2022 to 2023?
One thing that gets missed in a lot of the Dak discussion with the interceptions is that last year was somewhat of an outlier in Dak’s career in terms of interceptions. His 3.8% interception rate was much higher last year than any other year. And in general, Dak has an interception rate of under 2%. So really, it should have been expected that the interception rate would come down given his statistical history.
The new offensive scheme is also a change that could be having an impact. The Cowboys are now running a scheme that has a lot of West Coast principles, so the passing depth tends to be shorter, putting the ball in less danger. Under former coordinator Kellen More, the Cowboys pushed the ball deeper down the field than they do now with Mike McCarthy calling the plays.
McCarthy is also encouraging Prescott to take what the defense is giving him instead of pushing the ball into questionable separation windows. So when you combine the fact that Prescott has historically been a guy who doesn’t turn the ball over an inordinate amount with the new offensive scheme, and you are getting very few interceptions and turnover-worthy plays.
3. Mike McCarthy has taken over offensive play-calling duties this year. What differences have you seen from the Cowboys offense and has he stayed true to his desire to “run the damn ball”?
That “run the damn ball” thing was overplayed and taken somewhat out of context to use an old politician’s excuse. The only reason the Cowboys have run the ball as much as they have this year is that they have built up huge leads in games, so they are just burning clock and protecting the ball. And that is some of what that comment meant.
McCarthy felt that Kellen Moore was putting the ball in danger too often even with the Cowboys leading or having success on the ground in games.
The big differences in scheme this year are the West Coast principles we talked about above. The Cowboys are throwing shorter and letting playmakers do the work after the catch. They are also running their offense with a little more tempo than previously with Dak having a lot of control over the play-calls at the line of scrimmage.
Another change, and an ironic one considering the “run the damn ball” comment, is that the Cowboys are throwing more on early downs when the outcome of the game is still in question. Last year the Cowboys got behind the chains a lot with unsuccessful early-down runs, leading to Dak forcing the ball and the interceptions. That has changed under McCarthy.
4. Do you feel like Dallas has an advantage over San Francisco in a specific aspect of this matchup that could lead the Cowboys to victory?
I don’t know much of an advantage the Cowboys have, both these rosters are extremely talented and blessed with good depth at many spots. But if I’m in Dallas, I am going to try to take advantage of two areas. One is the Cowboys pass rush against the right side or middle of the 49ers offensive line, basically anywhere away from Trent Williams. I would move Micah Parsons around to the opposite side of Williams, and run a lot of the stunts to that side too. The Cowboys pass rush is easily the best part of the team, and that is one area they could attack.
On offense, I’m going to attack with CeeDee Lamb, who is a beast out of the slot, and Micahel Gallup, who is returning to form after a long recovery from an ACL injury. Dak is getting that ball out fast, so I’m prioritizing reads to those guys and let them attack the secondary. The 49ers are so well-rounded that it doesn’t leave a lot of area for advantages, but I feel like those are their best shots.
5. The early total line for this game is 45.0, according to DraftKings Sportsbook. Do you expect the league’s top two defenses to make it a low scoring affair, or are you taking the over? Do you think the Cowboys have a better chance of winning the game if it goes over or under?
To take the question in reverse order, I think the Cowboys have a better chance of winning if it goes under. The Cowboys' formula for winning this season is to bash the other team early in the game, even using defense or special teams to score or set up scores, then grind out the rest of the game with their offense that excels in converting third downs. So a lighting blitz to start the game, followed by a clock-burning grind it out battle suits them best. So they would hope for a score like 24-17 or something like that.
But given how much the 49ers have scored on teams this year, that doesn’t seem like the most realistic path. And if it goes to more of a shoot-out type of game, the Cowboys issues scoring touchdowns in the red zone could be the difference between winning and losing.