• Travis Rapp

Hogtying the Cowboys: How the Defense Can Stifle the Dallas Attack

Image Credit: 49ers

Anybody who is age thirty or older and a fan of the San Francisco 49ers football team is absolutely jacked about the 49ers’ Wild Card game opponent. As the sixth seed, the 49ers will be traveling to Texas to play against old time archrivals, the Dallas Cowboys, who earned the third seed. As an individual who came into his own NFL fandom in the 1990s, I grew up hating the Cowboys. I still believe that Troy Aikman was mediocre, Michael Irvin was middle of the road, and that Emmitt Smith couldn’t hold Barry Sander’s jock-strap. In fact, he couldn’t hold Frank Gore’s jock-strap.

It hurt when Deion Sanders signed with the Cowboys after helping Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Eric Davis, and the rest of the 1994 49ers team dismantle the Cowboys in the NFC Championship game.

Nostalgia aside, this Sunday’s game has very little to do with that rivalry. Although the likes of Irvin will be talking about the rivalry on TV; since that title game, these two teams have not crossed paths in meaningful games in a long time. There is one lesson that the 49ers can take from that game, which amazingly included 10 future Hall of Fame players: The 49ers’ defense needs to set the tone.

The January 1995 championship game started with a 44-yard interception return by Sanders’ partner at cornerback, Davis.

This year’s edition of the 49ers’ defense has shown the talent and ability to do the same thing. One only has to look at the team’s Monday night game in Week 10 against the Los Angeles Rams, when they jumped out to a lead after forcing the Rams’ quarterback Matthew Stafford to throw interceptions to safety Jimmie Ward on their first two possessions, the second one being returned for a touchdown. The 49ers’ defense has had a penchant for big plays when they are needed. Whether it’s defensive end Nick Bosa or one of the lesser-heralded pass-rushers getting a key sack to push a team out of field goal range or kill a drive, someone like cornerback Josh Norman punching the ball out (something he did seven times this season), or a rookie CB like Ambry Thomas making a huge interception to seal a win. The 49ers’ defense simply has play makers.

How do they match up with this edition of the Cowboys, though? The Cowboys have scored more touchdowns this season than any other team, racking up 61. The 49ers’ defensive propensity to bend but not break must be on display on Sunday.

Let’s take a look at the specifics.

Pass Defense

The Cowboys’ pass offense had the third most yards in the league, behind only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Los Angeles Chargers. Everyone is aware that if the 49ers’ defense has a weak spot, it’s the defensive secondary. Even with that being the case, the 49ers actually have the sixth-best pass defense when looking at yards given up, but that ranking drops to twelfth if you look only at the amount of times opponents were able to enter the end zone. The 49ers’ defense also had the fifth lowest amount of interceptions over the season. In fact, Cowboys cornerback Trayvon Diggs has two more interceptions than the entire 49ers defense (11 to 9).

Making interceptions isn’t the 49ers’ game though; their strength is getting to the quarterback. The 49ers ranked fifth in the league in sacks, even though their pressure rate was rather low (24.1 percent, which was twentieth in the NFL). The 49ers’ pass rushers are finishers. The San Francisco defensive line versus the Cowboys’ offensive line is a strength-versus-strength battle.

The 49ers’ defensive line will need to get a push up the middle of the Cowboys’ offensive line, and defensive tackles Arik Armstead and D.J. Jones have shown they can do that consistently. With Nick Bosa, Arden Key, and Samson Ebukam forcing Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott to step up in the pocket with their edge rushes, Armstead and Jones must eat up the middle of the pocket. Prescott has good mobility in the pocket and does a good job of navigating the pass rush, but that could play directly into the 49ers’ strength. Prescott isn’t one to pull the ball down and run like Kyler Murray or Jalen Hurts will. Prescott wants to stay in the pocket and find his receivers.

Speaking of receivers, I’m not really worried about Amari Cooper or Ceedee Lamb. The pass catcher who has made the Cowboys’ offense run at the end of the season is their WR3, Cedrick Wilson. The 49ers need K’Waun Williams back healthy from COVID and ready to take Wilson out of the game. One of the best nickel-cornerbacks in the NFL, Williams will be better than anyone Wilson has seen this season. We can expect the team to start Emmanuel Moseley and Thomas at the outside CB positions, and they match up with Cooper and Lamb well.

As long as the DL can make Prescott throw the ball sooner than he wants to, the 49ers’ secondary will be able to cover their opponents. Without Norman in the lineup, it seems that pass interference penalties are no longer a problem either.

Rush Defense

The 49ers gave up the seventh least rushing yards on the season and had the fifth best opponents yard per carry average at 4.0 yards. The Cowboys, of course, employ three-time Pro-Bowler Ezekiel Elliott to carry the football, but what has really helped the Cowboys’ rushing attack this season was the emergence of Tony Pollard as a worthy backfield mate. Elliott topped the 1,000-yard mark with 1,002 yards, and Pollard came away with 719 yards on the season. This combination gave the Cowboys the ninth-best rushing attack in the NFL (two spots behind the 49ers).

Again, this is a strength-against-strength battle. The 49ers have shown they can stop top-ranked rushing attacks, though. They held the Eagles RBs, Miles Sanders and Kenneth Gainwell, to under 100 total yards rushing (but allowed 82 to Hurts) and the Titans fifth-ranked rushing attack to just 90 yards in the Week 16 loss. The Niners’ physical play and lack of a weak spot along the defensive line allows their linebackers to come forward and make tackles in the backfield. It doesn’t have to be the linebackers, either, as Bosa tied possible Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt with 21 tackles-for-loss on the season.

There aren’t a lot of secrets to how the 49ers’ defense stops the run. The athletic defensive linemen often get into the backfield, and when they don’t, they fill the gaps and their athletic linebackers Fred Warner, Azeez Al-Shaair, Dre Greenlaw, and Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles swallow up running backs. Rarely does the secondary have to make a stop unless it’s one of the safeties in the box.

This will be a key component for the 49ers beating Dallas. The Cowboys are 1-5 when they don’t top 100 yards rushing this season, and the 49ers just happen for have gone the last nine weeks without allow 100 yards rushing by their opponent.

Putting it all Together

What does this mean in the big picture? The 49ers’ defense needs to win on first and second downs, creating low-percentage third downs. The team did a great job of this against the Tennessee Titans, only to allow wide receiver A.J. Brown to get open and convert on third-and-long situations. Part of that was the rush didn’t get to the QB on those third downs.

Fans saw a lot cleaner example last week in the second half against the Rams. The Rams’ four second-half drives that didn’t end in a touchdown or the end of the fourth quarter averaged 4.5 plays for 4.25 yards and only registered one first down. If you throw in the other three drives (one ten play drive for 77 yards that ended with a touchdown, a three play drive for nine yards that ended at the end of regulation, and a seven play drive for 14 yards that ended with Thomas’ interception in overtime) their second half/overtime averages are 5.5 plays for 17 yards per drive with a total of five first downs over the seven drives. Four of those first downs came on the Rams’ lone second-half scoring drive.

If the 49ers can force the Cowboys into early turnovers or three-and-outs, they will give QB Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers’ offense the opportunities to build a lead. The 49ers’ defense is built to sustain leads, with multiple pass rushers to harass the opponents’ QBs. The big issue is that the Cowboys have been one of the better third-down teams in the league. They converted 43.42 percent of their third downs, including 60 percent in Week 18.

A big problem on third downs has been pass interference penalties. It cost them the game against the Indianapolis Colts. Then, against the Titans, they went too soft on third down, and the Tennessee offense was able to convert. Hopefully for 49ers fans, the defense has found a happy medium, and the combination of Thomas and Moseley seems to have helped that problem.

All it will take is for a few of the 49ers defensive play makers, like Bosa, Warner, and Ward, to have big games on the big stage. They’ve all shown they can accomplish that task. Who knows, maybe Bosa will even plant a flag in the middle of that big blue star.

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