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  • Tony Fiorello

TONY’S TAKE – A PREVIEW OF COWBOYS-49ERS

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

Welcome to the 2022 NFL season’s Divisional Round Weekend. Here at Buffalo Sports Page we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.

One of the NFC’s divisional round games will take place at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California as the Dallas Cowboys will face the San Francisco 49ers. Here’s what you should know:

TAMPA, FLORIDA – JANUARY 16: CeeDee Lamb #88 of the Dallas Cowboys celebrates with Dak Prescott #4 after scoring a touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the fourth quarter in the NFC Wild Card playoff game at Raymond James Stadium on January 16, 2023 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)


COWBOYS’ OFFENSE A MIX OF OLD AND NEW IDEAS

The foundation of Dallas’ passing attack was the vertical-based Air Coryell system for the better part of three decades, but with the hire of former Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy in 2020 the offense has gotten a facelift. The melding of McCarthy’s version of the West Coast offense with the Cowboys’ former approach under previous head coach Jason Garrett has yielded solid results with Dallas being 14th in the NFL in passing, ninth in rushing, 11th in total offense and fourth in scoring this year.

It is coordinated by play caller Kellen Moore, who rose to the position in 2019. Moore has added more formations, motions and intricate route combinations to this attack, a refreshing change for an offense that previously utilized static formations and isolation routes that relied on a receiver’s talent to get open. The trigger man for Moore’s system is Dak Prescott, whose mobility helps Dallas remain dangerous on play-action, bootlegs, rollouts, zone-reads and RPOs – all plays that are built off the run.

Prescott is an interesting quarterback to evaluate, especially since for all his talent he tied the league lead in interceptions while playing in just 12 games. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “Prescott does many things well; he commands the field in spread-empty formations, makes the occasional big-time throw and poses a threat as a perimeter runner, keeping edge defenders from attacking down on Dallas’ zone runs….. Then there are the negatives. Prescott’s arm is merely adequate, and he’s not always great at reading a field quickly.”

Prescott’s top weapon in the passing game is third-year speedster CeeDee Lamb, who excels both on the boundary and in the slot and is a very good route runner. The problem for the Cowboys is that he’s their only consistent receiving threat, as Michael Gallup – who is normally their boundary ‘X’ receiver – and slot wideout Noah Brown have been up and down. Running back Ezekiel Elliott, who possesses sublime abilities in the screen game, and versatile backup Tony Pollard can align all over the formation. Dalton Schultz has emerged as a quality starting tight end.

Elliott, a powerful runner, and the explosive Pollard operate behind one of the league’s better offensive lines. Anchored by perennial All-Pros Tyron Smith and Zack Martin, rookie Tyler Smith, Connor McGovern, Tyler Bladasz and backups Jason Peters and Terrence Steele (out with an injury), this unit performs well on man and zone-based running plays.

TAMPA, FL – JANUARY 16: Micah Parsons #11 of the Dallas Cowboys runs downfield during the third quarter of an NFL wild card playoff football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on January 16, 2023 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)


DALLAS DEFENSE BUILT OFF SIMPLICITY

Former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator and Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn is a strong proponent of the Cover Three scheme (deep zone coverage on the outside with a safety in the box and a deep safety patrolling centerfield) and has had excellent results in Big D while also mixing in more single-high man coverages. While the Cowboys weren’t great against the run (22nd), they were ranked eighth against the pass, third in sacks, fifth in points allowed and tied for seventh in interceptions.

Dallas’ athletic defensive line – led by Demarcus Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong, Jonathan Hankins, Quinton Bohanna and Osa Odighizuwa – relies on slants, stunts and twists at the line of scrimmage to get to the quarterback. They also use them against the run, which helps shut down multiple gaps at once, while also executing multiple pressure concepts and defensive fronts. Helping at the second level are linebackers Micah Parsons (who is the team’s top blitzer and may be the league’s best pass rusher), Leighton Vander Esch and Anthony Barr, who are intelligent, fast and extremely good in run support and in pass coverage.

The Cowboys are led in their secondary by Trevon Diggs, Xavier Rhodes, Nahshon Wright, Anthony Brown and DaRon Bland, and their safeties are Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker and Donovan Wilson.

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA – DECEMBER 11: Christian McCaffrey #23 of the San Francisco 49ers and George Kittle #85 of the San Francisco 49ers line up during an NFL football game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Levi’s Stadium on December 11, 2022 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)


49ERS’ OFFENSE DEADLY

Like his father Mike before him, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan relies on an offense that is West Coast-based in its passing game and is very creative in its ability to attack matchups. It also utilizes a lot of play-action passes, bootlegs and rollouts designed around the threat of outside-zone runs and he has rode this approach to two conference championship game appearances and an NFC title in 2019.

The 49ers’ philosophy relies on a mobile offensive line that pushes defenders from sideline to sideline on “stretch” runs that encourages its tailbacks to find holes on the opposite side of the play’s direction and cut back against the grain. Executing these blocks are All-Pro Trent Williams (one of the NFL’s most agile left tackles who excels on screens), Aaron Banks, Jake Brendel, Spencer Burford (who have replaced last year’s interior of Laken Tomlinson, Alex Mack and Daniel Brunskill), Mike McGlinchey and versatile fullback Kyle Juszczyk.

While the outside/wide zone is the team’s foundational run, Shanahan will also use power plays, traps, sweeps and counters as a changeup tactic and will throw in some misdirection concepts like end-arounds and reverses as well. This system has made many a star out of running backs for decades and most of San Francisco’s runs are executed out of “21” personnel (two backs, one tight end).

The reason why the 49ers like to have two running backs on the field most of the time is to give credibility to the belief that they will call a running play at any time while also taking advantage of smaller defenders who are used to being on the field to stop the pass and creating more vanilla coverages. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “Shanahan plays with two backs more than any schemer, by a wide margin…. with two backs in, the Niners compel defenses to prepare for more run possibilities, which limits their options in coverages. Shanahan exploits the suddenly predictable coverages through route combinations or mismatch-making formation wrinkles.”

In years past, these concepts by the Bay were usually carried out by veterans like Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson Jr. and Matt Breida, but neither of these backs had the ability to affect defensive gameplans both on the ground and through the air. Enter former Carolina Panther Christian McCaffrey, who three years ago became just the third back in NFL annals to have both 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season (Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig are the others). Acquired at the trade deadline in exchange for draft pick compensation, the explosive McCaffrey is arguably the most talented running back either Shanahan has ever had play in this scheme, and he and speedy backup Elijah Mitchell have wreaked havoc for the 49ers.

Handing the ball off to them usually has been quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. “Jimmy G”, as some like to call him, is a former backup to Tom Brady in New England and was acquired in 2017 for a second-round draft pick. When he’s been on the field Garoppolo has shown to be intelligent, decisive and accurate (especially in the play-action game, which creates defined reads for him) and possesses a quick release, and adequate arm strength. Yet he’s rarely healthy or consistent (and he’s once again out with an injury – this time a broken foot), prompting Shanahan to draft the physically gifted Trey Lance from North Dakota State.

The problem is Lance is also out after fracturing his ankle in September – forcing Shanahan to rely on rookie Brock Purdy. A seventh-round pick in April out of Iowa State (and 2022’s “Mr. Irrelevant”, aka the last selection of the draft), Purdy was steady and efficient while holding down the fort to the tune of a 13:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a completion percentage of 67.1.

San Francisco’s weapons in the passing game are dangerous. Three-time All-Pro tight end George Kittle has blossomed into one of the league’s best at his position and is dominant both in the receiving game and at the point of attack. Speedsters Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk are similar receivers – each are polished route runners, have good hands and are adept at picking up yards after the catch. They can also return punts in a pinch and are liberally used by Shanahan in jet and orbit motion to influence defenders’ responsibilities. Samuel has also emerged as a dangerous ballcarrier on reverses and end-arounds and will sometimes line up at running back (backups Jauan Jennings and Ray-Ray McCloud III sometimes get in on the action as well).

Similar to his predecessors, Shanahan will have his wide receivers, running backs and tight ends line up in unusual places in the formation to determine if defenses are playing man or zone coverage and will have his wide receivers stay inside the numbers to give them additional space to run routes and to serve as additional blockers. His scheme makes excellent use of shifts and motions (especially to create false reads and favorable angles in the running game) and the receivers’ pass patterns work well off one another with many intersecting routes at all three levels.

San Francisco had good production in 2022, finishing the season fifth in total yards, 13th in passing and eighth in rushing. Additionally, they were sixth in scoring.

SANTA CLARA, CA – JANUARY 14: Nick Bosa #97, Fred Warner #54 and Tashaun Gipson Sr. #31 of the San Francisco 49ers tackle Kenneth Walker III #9 of the Seattle Seahawks during the NFC Wild Card playoff game at Levi’s Stadium on January 14, 2023 in Santa Clara, California. The 49ers defeated the Seahawks 41-23. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)


SAN FRANCISCO’S DEFENSE A COUSIN OF THE COWBOYS’

When Shanahan was hired by San Francisco he brought in Robert Saleh, a longtime protégé of Gus Bradley, as his defensive coordinator. Bradley was one of the original architects (along with Quinn and Pete Carroll) of the Seattle Seahawks’ fabled Cover Three defensive scheme which they employed en route to back-to-back NFC championships and a Super Bowl title between 2013-14.

Saleh has since become the head coach of the New York Jets and his replacement is former assistant coach (and ex-linebacker) DeMeco Ryans. Ryans has kept the 49ers’ system intact and they ended 2022 first in total yards given up, second against the run, 20th versus the pass and first in points allowed (not to mention tied for 10th in sacks and first in interceptions). Their base coverage remains Cover Three, but they have added in more split safety zone coverages like Two, Four and Six to not get beaten by deep crossing patterns.

The prototype for Cover Three-style cornerbacks for years has been for them to have length and an ability to excel in press coverage – so the 49ers have made sure that three corners on their roster (Charvarius Ward, Dontae Johnson and Ambry Thomas) are at least 6’0”. Emmanuel Moseley, Deommodore Lenoir and Jason Verrett are also important cogs on this unit, but Verrett, Johnson and Moseley are all out with various injuries. Safety Jimmie Ward – who played multiple defensive back positions in his earlier years – is now the team’s nickel corner out of necessity, and Tashaun Gipson and Talanoa Hufanga are the starters on the back end.

The 49ers have an excellent pair of linebackers for their nickel packages in underrated sideline-to-sideline playmaker Dre Greenlaw and one of the league’s best in Fred Warner (Azzez Al-Shaair is the third linebacker). In front of them is one of the NFL’s elite defensive lines made up of Nick Bosa, Arik Amrstead, Javon Kinlaw and Samson Ebukam.

The linemen are adept at controlling one or two gaps when defending the run, and Ryans – like Saleh before him – uses one or two of his linemen to two-gap while the rest of the front seven will control just one, which eliminates any potential holes for opposing running backs to go through. Ryans will also have his linemen liberally execute stunts, twists and slants to open up one-on-one opportunities in pass rush situations and especially out of five-man tilted fronts.

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