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Cowboys vs 49ers Preview: Can San Francisco Slow Dak?

Wild Card weekend is here! Arguably the most intriguing matchup of the weekend takes place in Dallas as the 12-5 Cowboys take on the 9-7 San Francisco 49ers. Both of these teams have plenty of talent on both sides of the ball and are more than capable of making a run to the Super Bowl -- but one will have their season ended on Sunday.

Cowboys Offense vs 49ers Defense

Nov 14, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) celebrates scoring a touchdown in the third quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Led by Dak Prescott, the Cowboys have a prolific offense. According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA, the Cowboys had the sixth-best offense in the NFL during the regular season, ranking sixth in the pass and 13th in the run. Coming off a gruesome leg injury, Prescott hasn’t missed a beat in his return as he threw for 4449 yards (7th in the NFL) and 37 TDs (4th) with a 104.2 rating (3rd). Alongside Prescott, the Cowboys have a dynamic backfield duo of Ezekiel Elliot and Tony Pollard, along with a plethora of receiving options in Amari Cooper, Ceedee Lamb, Dalton Schultz, and Cedric Wilson. Needless to say, the Cowboys present a scary matchup for opposing defenses.

Even so, the Cowboys offense has slowed down after getting off to a scorching hot start. Through Week 6, the Cowboys averaged 34 points per game, ranking 5th in Expected Points Added per play and 2nd in Success Rate according to However, from Week 9 to the end of the season, the Cowboys only averaged 28 points per game, ranking 16th in Expected Points Added per play and 21st in Success Rate. Their dropback success rate went from 2nd to 19th, and their rushing success rate went from 3rd to 27th. As the season progressed, the Cowboys offense began to look one-dimensional, relying far too much on the pass and neglecting the run. Against a stout 49ers run defense that ranks 2nd in the NFL in DVOA, the Cowboys may continue to struggle with establishing the run.

The 49ers do have a vulnerable secondary, and the Cowboys will certainly look to exploit San Francisco's 16th ranked pass defense. To contain Dallas’ passing game, the 49ers will need to get pressure on Prescott without blitzing, something they’ve done well all year. The 49ers defense ranks fifth in ESPN’s pass rush win rate (46%), and they sacked Matthew Stafford five times last week to come from behind and clinch their playoff spot after trailing 17-0 in the second quarter.

One area the Cowboys offense has particularly struggled has been on third and long. The Cowboys rank 31st in the NFL on third and fourth downs with seven or more yards to go, with just a 17.4% success rate. A key for the 49ers will be to neutralize the Cowboys run game and force Dallas into third and long situations.

Furthermore, the Cowboys have struggled early in games, trailing at halftime in five of their last six games against playoff teams (not including week 18 when the Eagles rested their starters). The Cowboys can’t afford to get off to a slow start against the 49ers, a run-heavy team that can shorten the game with the lead. Overcoming a deficit won’t be as easy against this 49ers team.

Keys for the Cowboys: get off to a fast start, establish the run, be productive on first and second down

Keys for the 49ers: get pressure without blitzing, neutralize the run

49ers Offense vs Cowboys Defense

Nov 28, 2021; Santa Clara, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel (19) celebrates with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) after a touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings during the first quarter at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers rely heavily on their run game and the creativity of coach Kyle Shanahan on offense. The 49ers had the fifth most rushing attempts and fourth fewest passing attempts during the regular season. While they may not be as explosive as the Dallas offense, the 49ers have a well-rounded unit. According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA, the 49ers have the NFL's fifth-best offense, ranking fifth in both the pass and the run. On the other side of the ball, the Cowboys defense ranks second in the NFL, holding the second-best pass defense and 16th-ranked run defense.

The 49ers will need to stay on the ground to drain the clock and keep the ball away from the explosive Dallas offense, and they're more than capable of doing so as they ranked 28th in pace of play during the regular season. San Francisco's rushing attack is led by rookie Elijah Mitchell and first-team all-pro receiver Deebo Samuel. Since Week 10, Samuel has been given a lot more rushing opportunities and the 49ers have gone 7-2 after starting 3-5.

Dec 19, 2021; Santa Clara, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel (19) runs with the ball for a touchdown during the second quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

A major key for the Cowboys will be forcing the 49ers to pass. The Cowboys are an elite turnover forcing defense, leading the NFL in takeaways (34) and turnover differential (+14), and Jimmy Garoppolo can be a turnover machine if he’s forced to throw. Although the Cowboys defense forces a lot of turnovers, they also give up a lot of big plays as a result. The Cowboys allow an explosive run on 12.1% of carries, 25th in the NFL. Dallas will need to eliminate explosive runs and force the 49ers into passing situations so that they can lean on their elite pass defense.

Under new Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn, the Cowboys rank fourth in the NFL in pressure rate (27.6%) with only a 27.1% blitz rate. Jimmy Garoppolo’s yards per attempt drops from 9.0 to 7.4 when he's under pressure, and his 29.2 PFF passing grade under pressure ranks last among qualified quarterbacks. If the Cowboys can force the 49ers to throw and get pressure on Garoppolo, things may get ugly for the 49ers offense.

Dec 26, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Micah Parsons (11) sacks Washington Football Team quarterback Taylor Heinicke (4) during the second quarter at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

In addition, the Cowboys play man defense at one of the highest rates in the NFL, which may give the 49ers offense problems. The 49ers average 7.9 yards per targeted pass against man defense, whereas they average 10.1 against zone defense. Deebo Samuel averages 3.70 yards per route against zone to just 1.84 against man defense. Other key playmakers like George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk face similar dropoffs.

Keys for the 49ers: stay on the ground, explosive runs, keep Dallas guessing

Keys for the Cowboys: force the 49ers to pass, get pressure on Garoppolo, lean on man coverage


The team that dictates the pace of the game will ultimately come out on top. In front of their home crowd, the Cowboys should have all the energy and momentum to throw the 49ers off and take over the game. After scoring over 50 points in two of their last three games, Prescott and the Cowboys offense seems rejuvenated after a mid-season slump, and the top-ranked total DVOA team in football appears poised to make a Super Bowl run. When playing at their best, the Cowboys present one of the most difficult matchups in all of football and have an abundance of talent from top to bottom.

Cowboys 31, 49ers 23

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