Rekindling the Past: Previewing the 49ers Matchup Against the Cowboys
Image Credit: Associated Press
For people of a certain vintage, this is the big one. Forget about the Seahawks; there’s something different about 49ers-Cowboys. It dates all the way back to the 1970s (before my time) when the Cowboys ended the 49ers’ playoff dreams for three years in a row from 1970-72. It continued to grow in legend in the 1981 NFC Championship Game where the 49ers finally saw off the Cowboys courtesy of “The Catch.”
But for me, it was a short stretch between 1992 and 1994 that etched the rivalry in my brain and made it so big for me. Just as in the ‘70s, Dallas won the first two games (and went on to win the Super Bowl) but the 49ers finally had their day, winning in ’94 on route to their triumph in Super Bowl XXIX.
Back then, it was Steve Young versus Troy Aikman but this week rivalries will be renewed with Jimmy Garoppolo and Dak Prescott at the helm of their respective teams.
First Things First
Some Cowboys fans have been acting like the 49ers are a mere speed bump on their road to glory, already talking on podcasts about who they will face next.
Not so fast, my Texan friends. This 49ers team, whilst wildly unpredictable at times, certainly has more than enough talent to merit a bit more respect than that.
As well as the undoubted talent on the roster, they are also much healthier than they have been all season and look primed to put up a big performance on Sunday. With the return of Trent Williams to anchor the offensive line and a fully-fit Elijah Mitchell, the 49ers’ ground game will be pivotal in advancing this weekend.
Keys to Victory
Run the Ball
Firstly, as mentioned above, the running game will be instrumental in any hopes the 49ers have of advancing to the next round. Although the Cowboys have a strong and talented pass rushing defensive line, they have been a little bit susceptible to the run all season.
As you can see above, that makes pretty encouraging reading for a 49ers team who get their best results when they can dominate the game on the ground. If they can continue this on Sunday and keep the game in a manageable situation then it bodes well.
On the flip side however, this will come as no surprise to the Cowboys who will be expecting that kind of game plan and will be primed to stop it.
Can the 49ers use the Cowboys’ speed and desire to pursue the run to help overcome them? Surely an offensive mind as keen as Kyle Shanahan will be able to find a way of using their speed against them, drawing them in and getting them to over-pursue and leave gaps for some quick play-action passes? This would play right into the hands of San Francisco’s YAC specialists, such as George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, and Brandon Aiyuk.
Stop the Run
The Cowboys like to run the ball through Zeke Elliott and Tony Pollard, but as you can see from the stats below, this plays right into one of the 49ers’ greatest strengths, their run defense. Ranked second in the league for EPA per play on first and second downs, if the 49ers can maintain that level of performance, they have a chance to make the Cowboys a bit more one-dimensional.
The problem with stopping the run is that it forces the Cowboys to throw the ball to their arsenal of receiving weapons and pits their strength against your weakness. With the greatest will in the world, it would be somewhat unreasonable to expect the 49ers’ secondary to take away the likes of CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper, and Cedric Wilson for the whole game. These are big play guys who can destroy you in an instant and they will have an in-form Dak Prescott - who passed for over 4,000 yards this season – throwing them the ball.
The best solution? Get to the quarterback – take away your weakness by leaning into your strength. Recently, DeMeco Ryans has been moving his various defensive line pieces around to create plenty of pressure. If they can get significant pressure on Prescott and prevent him finding his rhythm, they may just be able to do enough to help out their secondary and stop the Cowboys pass offense from getting hot.
Want more encouragement? OK.
Although, the Cowboys’ O-line has been much celebrated at times this season, their greatest successes have been in running the ball. When they have been required to pass protect, the numbers don’t look quite as good.
You would think that the form that they have been in, the Niners’ pass rushers will fancy their chances to get in Dak’s face and cause some trouble.
Don’t Shoot Yourself in the Foot
I know that there’s no such thing as mistake-free football, but in close games, the key is often which team makes fewer mistakes. Most of the 49ers’ losses this season have come from self-inflicted wounds, most notably on special teams or through interceptions and penalties. To win on Sunday, they will need to be disciplined and play a clean, tidy game.
The special-team units just need to be safe: no fumbling, kick-off through the end zone etc. and hopefully Josh Norman and his penchant for pass-interference penalties will stay on the bench.
On offense, Jimmy Garoppolo will have to protect the ball and avoid putting the defense back on a short field.
The above stat is quite stark and shows just how important it is for the 49ers to not turn over the ball on Sunday. The Cowboys’ Trayvon Diggs has 11 interceptions this season so clearly has ball skills however he has also allowed nearly 1,000 yards (the most in the league) at an average of 18.2 yards (40 percent from YAC). Target him in the right way and Deebo, Aiyuk and Kittle should be able to take advantage.
In summary, this is a mouth-watering clash which evokes many memories of classic games from the past. The last time the 49ers beat Dallas in the playoffs, they went on to win the Super Bowl – could history repeat itself in 2022?
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