All-32: 49ers' Fates Lie in Nick Bosa's Hands
Welcome to All-32, a game-by-game preview of every matchup on the NFL slate each week. The goal is to provide a look at the most critical part of each game with a marriage of data and film study. As the season rolls along, the focus will narrow in on the specifics, but for this week, many of the featured players and units are big-picture projections for the teams in question.
If you're interested in our game picks, you can find them on this page.
Let's get to it. All times listed as Eastern.
Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers—Sunday, 6:30 p.m.
DAL Offense vs. SF Defense Key Unit: SF Defensive Line
San Francisco's defensive line is the unit most capable of taking over this game. Defensive end Nick Bosa is the clubhouse leader for the Defensive Player of the Year award, defensive tackle Arik Armstead is only looking better and better since returning from injury in December, defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw has turned it on lately, and the slew of pass-rushers opposite Bosa are plenty effective sidekicks. It's a defensive line sent straight from the depths of hell to terrorize their opponents.
More than just having pass-rushing talent, it's how the 49ers can deploy those talents. The first sack of the game against Geno Smith last week was a prime example. In the clip above, Bosa and Armstead are both lined up to the offense's right side. Defensive end Charles Omenihu is also in the A-gap to that side of the center, which helps guarantee 1-on-1s for Bosa and Armstead because even sliding to that side wouldn't create any double team help. Bosa and Armstead each cave their opponent in, but Armstead is the one who gets all the way through, finishing the play with just one of his insanely long arms.
The 49ers' front gets after it the run game, too. Bosa, for all his pass-rushing prowess, is the leader of chaos against the run. In this example, the Seahawks run GT counter right at Bosa. Not only does Bosa cave the tight end in immediately, but he recognizes the pullers, shuffles to split the difference, and pries his way through them to push the runner wide and force a tackle for loss.
That kind of play is especially devastating for the Cowboys. Their run game has struggled down the stretch of the year as it is, but their best runs have typically been pulling plays for Tony Pollard. Since the rushing offense isn't efficient right now, those pulling runs to Pollard at least give them the chance to be explosive. If Bosa either crushes those runs or telegraphs them to all be run away from him, the Cowboys run game will be hamstrung, which will in turn create some nasty down-and-distances for the pass-rush to go crazy.
The freshly shuffled Cowboys line fared well against the Bucs' front, but the 49ers are a different beast. A good day from the gold and scarlet front four might be all it takes to give the 49ers control of this game.
SF Offense vs. DAL Defense Key Unit: SF Interior Offensive Line
The 49ers offense is overwhelming. Mad scientist Kyle Shanahan is working with the best group of skill players he has ever had and arguably the best in the league. Tackle duo Trent Williams and Mike McGlinchey are one of the best pairings in the NFL. Even quarterback Brock Purdy, for all his warts, gives the offense just enough to not derail everything else the offense has going for it.
If the 49ers offense can be exploited anywhere, though, it's along the interior. The guards are both young players whose tape is littered with mistakes compared to the rest of the offense, while center Jake Brendel is a sub-300-pounder with strength issues that run him into trouble against defenders with some pop to them. They're not a bad group—they're about league average—but next to the other players on the offense, they are the weak link.
When only accounting for the interior trio, the 49ers have the 17th-ranked blown block rate in the NFL, per Sports Info Solutions. Again, that's not bad. It's fine in most games. When singling out the tackles, however, the 49ers have the eighth-best blown block rate. It's clear both on film and by the numbers that it's easier to pressure the 49ers inside than outside.
That's good news for Dallas. The Cowboys primarily win with their edge rushers, but their front is explosive all around and they send plenty of pressure that causes problems for interior players. Defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa is a pure gap-shooting 3-technique, and a darn good one. Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence typically comes off the edge, but any time they send him to knife inside and take on guards, he has more than enough strength, explosiveness, and hand-fighting savvy to be a menace. The same is true of Micah Parsons, though he more often wins with unrivaled speed and power for a guy his size.
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn should make it a priority to stunt, twist, and send extra bodies between the tackles as frequently as he can within his system to make the 49ers' interior trio sort things out. The concern is that it may make them less disciplined against the run, but they're an unsound unit anyway. Every player on the front is more concerned with disruption than soundness. It's just how they play; they're a havoc unit, not a suffocating one. In a game where the Cowboys aren't favored to win anyway, it might serve them well to lean all the way into the chaos and see if they can get some negative plays, especially early.