For the Dallas Cowboys to win in Sunday’s Divisional Round game against San Francisco, overcoming the 49ers’ tough defense will be a key area of concern. Based on what we’ve seen from San Francisco’s defense this year, what would be the Cowboys’ best strategy for success?
First, it’s important that we clearly identify just who the Niners’ defense is. It was the top-ranked defense in 2022 based on the traditional measure of yards allowed per game. San Francisco also allowed just 16.3 points per game for another league-leading statistic. They were tied for first in interceptions with 20, tied 10th in sacks with 44, and tied for fifth in forced fumbles with 16 on the year.
The key to San Francisco’s defensive success is their proficiency against the run. They allowed just 77.7 rushing yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry. They force the team to go to the air, which contributed to their high marks in forcing turnovers and other big plays.
But when opposing offenses do lean on the passing game, they haven’t found the same level of resistance. The 49ers were only ranked 20th against the pass in total yardage and allowed a 65.6 completion percentage. If teams could protect their quarterbacks long enough, San Francisco was susceptible to big plays through the air as opponents took advantage of their trademark aggressiveness. In their loss to the Chiefs, Kansas City put up 423 passing yards. In the Week 17 overtime victory in Las Vegas, the 49ers allowed backup QB Jarrett Stidham to post 365 passing yards on them.
Where can Cowboys exploit the 49ers?
Another area where the Niners struggled was against running quarterbacks. In their four regular-season losses, plus the overtime victory over the Raiders in Week 17, San Fran gave up 50 rushing yards or more to quarterbacks twice and 34 yards in another game.
So, what does this mean for the Cowboys offense? Obviously, this wouldn’t be the day to try to pound the rock with RB Ezekiel Elliott. Much like we saw Monday night, Tony Pollard gives them their best chance on the ground, using his speed to maximize whatever small seams the blocking is able to create. But make no mistake; the 49ers will be even tougher to run on than Tampa Bay was.
That means, naturally, that it all comes back to QB Dak Prescott. Dallas will certainly need Dak to be as good as, if not better than, he was against the Buccaneers. But while Tampa Bay wasn’t able to get much pressure on Prescott, you know that Nick Bosa and the 49ers pass rush will make life more difficult for him. It also won’t help that OT Jason Peters is likely to miss the game with a hip injury.
Pass pro is everything
If Dallas can find ways to give Dak time in the pocket, he’s going to need to be more willing to go for the deep pass. While we’ve seen Prescott get aggressive with fitting the ball into tight windows, which has been an issue with some of his interceptions this year, he’s rarely let it loose on deep shots down the field. With the 49ers’ proven susceptibility in that area, the Cowboys have to give WRs CeeDee Lamb and T.Y. Hilton some chances to go long and make plays.
Also, Dak has to just tuck it and run when the opportunities present themselves. While he’s lost some of the speed from his younger days, he can still make teams pay with the run. Dallas should take a page from the Eagles’ book, remembering how they used the RPO to neutralize Micah Parsons at times, and put the 49ers to the test on the edges.
More than anything, though, Prescott needs to relax and not force any issues. This defense will make him pay for playing hero ball. He needs to pick the right moments to press and also wisely decide when to hold back and wait for the next series.
I know it sounds cliche to put it all on the quarterback but this 49ers defense dictates that focus. If it wasn’t enough for Dak Prescott to face the pressure of trying to get the Cowboys back to the NFC Championship Game, he’s probably going to have to be the MVP to make it happen. Last week was a very encouraging sign, but this week’s opponent will provide a much tougher test.