Cooper's Downfield Threat Critical Against 49ers
NFL Wild Card - It is fitting that the first postseason after John Madden's passing should include the first 49ers-Cowboys playoff game in 27 years. Madden and Pat Summerall called eight consecutive Dallas-San Francisco matchups between 1992 and 1997, including three straight NFC Championship Games. For a whole generation of fans, you can't think about this matchup without BOOMs and POPs and WHAMs. Madden and Summerall were given the call year-in and year-out because this is one of the greatest matchups in NFL history—this will be the eighth time the 49ers and Cowboys face each other in the postseason, and four of the previous seven ended up on the NFL's list of the 100 greatest games in league history. It's about time for a new generation of fans to learn what all the hubbub is about.
While this year's clash comes earlier in the postseason than many of their former encounters, it is shaping up to be a fascinating matchup on its own merits. The Cowboys come in as the top team in the league by both DVOA and weighted DVOA, and not just because they throttled Philadelphia's backups and Washington's COVID reserves. Dallas has had a positive DVOA in 15 of their 17 games this season, and other than a brief hiccup in November, that level of week-in, week-out consistency propelled them to top of the league in a year where there are no truly great teams.
Their reward for that is a game against the team no NFL squad wanted to win a wild-card spot. The 49ers come in fifth in weighted DVOA, having clinched a spot over the Saints thanks to an improbable second-half comeback against the Rams in Week 18. At midseason, there were questions about Kyle Shanahan's job security. Over the last half of the year, however, the 49ers ranked fifth in offensive DVOA and fourth in defensive DVOA as they roared back into the postseason. While the Cowboys are rightfully favored, they and the rest of the NFC would much rather have faced any of the other wild-card contenders. This is the toughest first-round matchup for the top team in DVOA since the 2009 Patriots had to take on the Ravens … which also happens to be the last time the top-ranked team in DVOA bowed out in the wild-card round.
It's a fascinating matchup where each team's offense looks ideally prepared to attack the weaknesses of the other team's defense. The winner of this one may well be the one that plays against type the most; the team that holds up where they have struggled all year long.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.
|DVOA||19.5% (6)||30.9% (1)|
|WEI DVOA||24.8% (5)||34.8% (1)|
|49ers on Offense|
|SF OFF||DAL DEF|
|DVOA||14.9% (5)||-15.2% (2)|
|WEI DVOA||16.8% (4)||-19.1% (1)|
|PASS||33.2% (5)||-20.5% (2)|
|RUSH||6.6% (5)||-7.1% (16)|
|Cowboys on Offense|
|SF DEF||DAL OFF|
|DVOA||-7.0% (7)||13.5% (6)|
|WEI DVOA||-11.7% (5)||11.3% (7)|
|PASS||5.8% (16)||31.7% (6)|
|RUSH||-24.8% (2)||-4.0% (13)|
|DVOA||-2.4% (26)||2.2% (6)|
All readers can click here for the open in-game discussion thread. If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
Kyle Shanahan's offense is built around pressure: stress-testing opponents and getting them to make the wrong decisions. San Francisco leads the league by using motion on 74.5% of their snaps, forcing defenses to show their hands early and allowing the 49ers to dictate the sorts of matchups they are going to face. Jet motion from Deebo Samuel or Brandon Aiyuk will often force linebackers and safeties to at least respect the possibility that the play will be going to the outside, taking attention out of the tackle box, where the 49ers can attack with their diverse run game.
The trio of Trent Williams, George Kittle, and Kyle Juszcyzk gets the hype and the highlights of pancake blocks, but the 49ers have plus run-blockers all over their lineup with all five linemen playing very well, along with very solid and feisty run blocking from receivers such as Jauan Jennings. The 49ers' 6.6% rushing DVOA is already good on its own, and it rises to 8.8% when starting running back Elijah Mitchell played the entire game, not to mention the added wrinkle over the back half of the season with Samuel all of a sudden becoming one of the most efficient running backs in football. When the running game is ticking, the 49ers become absolutely demoralizing to play against—see, for example, the 10 straight rushes against the Rams, where the 49ers just kept calling lead zone toss over and over and over again. The 49ers have had 10 drives eat up at least seven minutes this season, six that ate at least half a quarter, and two of the three longest drives of the season at 13:05 and 11:03, respectively. This is the 49ers' strength up against the Cowboys' weakness; Dallas ranks just 16th in run defense.
The Cowboys' run defense is actually just fine when they get to a running back; the problem is that they rank 30th in yards before contact per rush. It's frequently the second-level defenders that are getting in to make the stops, whether that be Micah Parsons using his incredible closing speed to chase down backs or Jayron Kearse or Malik Hooker flying up from safety. It's a significantly improved defense from 2020, where those plays would often end up with no one making the tackle, but the Cowboys' defensive front can be bullied around a bit in the right circumstances. It has been getting worse as the season has gone along, too; they have allowed 100 rushing yards in 11 of their past 12 games. Their best four days by DVOA all came in the first half of the season, and they fall from 14th in run defense DVOA over the first half of the year to 22nd over the last half. Dallas' best defense against the run is probably to score enough on offense to force the 49ers to throw more, which to be fair has worked for them all season long—the Cowboys have faced the seventh-fewest running back carries in the league.
When the 49ers do go back to throw, it's a much more even contest, with Dallas having the advantage before the ball is thrown and the 49ers having the advantage afterwards. Parsons has been a dominating force as a pass rusher, an uber-versatile piece that can line up anywhere along the line or at linebacker and still generate pressure. Parsons is sixth in the league with 40 pass pressures on his lonesome, and when you add in DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, you have an extreme amount of pressure around the edge. The Cowboys rank seventh in pressure rate and 12th in adjusted pass rate; they force opponents to get the ball out quickly or get introduced to the turf. And the Cowboys' secondary has done a fantastic job taking advantage of quarterbacks being forced to throw the ball before they want to. Trevon Diggs and company can take more chances knowing that the defensive front is going to collapse the pocket quickly, and that's a huge reason why Dallas leads the league in takeways. Many of Diggs' 11 interceptions come from him jumping hot routes from panicked passers; he can gamble and succeed because of the pass rush.
If the 49ers do have time to throw, however, the balance shifts. The 49ers' passing attack is built around yards after the catch, and no team gets the ball into their playmakers' hands better than San Francisco. Deebo Samuel leads all qualified receivers with a +2.9 YAC+ (yards after catch above expected); Brandon Aiyuk is fifth at +1.2. George Kittle had an off year, in that he was "only" sixth among tight ends at +0.8. In general, the 49ers lead the league with 6.6 YAC per catch, with Samuel having the best raw totals by any receiver in the past 15 years. That's tough for any team to deal with, but the Cowboys in particular have been burned badly by YAC this season, dead last at 6.3 YAC per catch given up. Diggs' gambling style earned him turnovers, but also meant he gave up 411 yards after the catch, most of any cornerback in the league; Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis are in the bottom 10 as well. The linebackers and safeties aren't particularly great at coverage, either; the Cowboys rank 17th in DVOA against tight ends, so expect the 49ers to challenge them early and often over the middle.
Dallas ranks first against No. 1 receivers with a DVOA of -40.2%, but Samuel is not a traditional top receiver—how many WR1s do you know of who line up in the backfield 10% of the time? Diggs is a particularly bad matchup against Samuel on shorter routes for those YAC and speed reasons; it may make more sense for Parsons to track Samuel when he lines up in the backfield or in the slot. But that takes Parsons out of the pass rush, which could free up time for Aiyuk against Dan Quinn's Cover-1. The chess match between Quinn and his old coordinator Shanahan is going to be fascinating to watch; we'll have to see if he learned any tricks from their days together in Atlanta.
The X-factor is the man with the bum hand, Jimmy Garoppolo. Statistically, Garoppolo has been very good this season, fifth in passing DVOA at 17.9%. But you don't see that when you watch film, where he looks confident but average. Garoppolo does a very good job finding open receivers across the middle and hitting them in space, allowing them to rack up that YAC. But when a play isn't open, Garoppolo can't create. There aren't plays where Garoppolo does something amazing, jukes a blitzer, or fires a laser across the field. He doesn't have the arm strength to challenge corners down the sidelines or the athleticism to buy time when the play breaks down. Garoppolo is an excellent distributor with a deep understanding of the offense, and when things are going well, he can keep the 49ers humming. But pressure and coverage will derail the 49ers' aerial attack more than it will for any other top-10 DVOA passer. And that's not getting into Garoppolo's tendency to throw back-breaking interceptions when defenses rotate coverage into the middle of the field after the snap; a little more object permanence and maybe the 49ers don't use three first-round picks to draft his successor. Harass Garoppolo and get him to make mistakes, and the Cowboys will win this ballgame; San Francisco is just 2-6 when they commit at least two turnovers, and no one takes the ball away quite like Dallas does.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
If the Cowboys have enough time to pass deep, they will win this ballgame.
The 49ers are second in DVOA against the run. They are fourth in DVOA on short passes. But on deep passes, ones that travel at least 16 yards through the air, they are dead last. The Cowboys, perhaps surprisingly, are only 15th in deep passing DVOA, but they certainly have the talent to take advantage of the 49ers' cornerbacks, who are simply dreadful.
A chunk of this has to do with pass interference. The 49ers have been flagged 23 times this season for DPI, giving up a league-most 367 yards, with Josh Norman leading the way with six flags against him. But even if you take DPIs out, the 49ers would only improve to 117.9% in defensive DVOA on deep passes, which would rank 31st. A.J. Brown nearly single-handedly willed the Titans to victory over the 49ers, and big days by Davante Adams, Michael Pittman, and DeAndre Hopkins were at least partially responsible for multiple other San Francisco losses. Even with Ambry Thomas growing under fire and the return of Emmanuel Moseley, this is a flashing weak spot that Kellen Moore isn't going to pass up.
The Cowboys have a 147.5% DVOA when targeting Amari Cooper deep, compared to a 0.3% DVOA when targeting CeeDee Lamb deep; five of Dak Prescott's seven interceptions on deep passes have been thrown at Lamb. So the deep passing attack in this one should be centered around Cooper going deep down the middle of the field, splitting the safeties and challenging Moseley to keep up. The 49ers are not going to be able to hang with him.
Prescott's return from his compound ankle fracture started amazingly well, with a 42.8% passing DVOA through the first six weeks of the season. Since his calf injury, however, he has been closer to average—just 2.5% from Weeks 8 to 17, omitting when he dominated the Eagles backups in the final week of the season. A lot of that decrease can be blamed on his diminished mobility, which also shows up in his running splits; he's dead last among quarterbacks this season with -97 rushing DYAR on a below-career-average 35 rushes. It's also worth noting that Prescott has only thrown three touchdowns to three interceptions against Cover-3 this season, which is what the 49ers use to try to give their cornerbacks some sort of help. He still has very solid numbers against zone coverages in general with a 50% success rate, but it's when he can isolate his receivers in man-on-man coverage that he has really been able to pour on big plays; the rub routes that Dallas likes to use, especially short, are more effective against man than they are in zone. The 49ers' defense already leans towards playing zone and not blitzing, and they need to do that basically 100% of the time on Sunday.
But no matter what scheme the secondary uses, the only way the 49ers are going to survive Dallas' sixth-ranked passing attack is if their front seven takes over the game. They certainly have the talent to do so; Nick Bosa is one of the few players in the league with more pressures than Parsons, and the 49ers supplement him with a line including Arik Armstead, D.J. Jones, Arden Key, and Samson Ebukam, any and all of whom are capable of taking advantage of the inevitable Bosa double team to create problems of their own. Bosa's the only one on the 49ers' front with double-digit sacks, but the entire front seven fires off the ball quickly, creating chaos and challenging opposing offensive lines to pick up their movement. San Francisco has a top-10 pressure rate, and they generate it without blitzing much—the third-lowest blitz rate in the league, per ESPN Stats and Info. They count on their front four to win on their own to force quick passing attempts, and for Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, and Aziz Al-Shaair to mop up anything over the middle.
Will the Cowboys' offensive line be up to the challenge? Well, that depends on whom you ask. ESPN is unimpressed, ranking the Cowboys 23rd in pass block win rate. Adjusted sack rate is kinder, with the Cowboys ranked ninth. Some of that is Prescott's ability to avoid sacks, but just from watching them, it feels like it's much more accurate to call the Cowboys' line a top-10 unit than it is to call them bottom-10. SIS charting gives the Cowboys just 78 blown pass blocks, eighth-fewest in the league, and their biggest offender (Terence Steele with 20) won't be playing barring a disaster. When Tyron Smith has played, he has been in his usual form as one of the best tackles in the game, and Zack Martin and La'el Collins might make up the best right side in the league. They do have issues up the middle with center Tyler Biadasz and a revolving door at left guard, but those certainly aren't insurmountable. Expect the 49ers to challenge that some with their NASCAR package, where they slip Bosa and Key inside, but the Cowboys may well be able to hold the line.
However, the line will also probably hold. The Cowboys have been flagged 34 times for holding this season, second-most in the league. Connor Williams has drawn 13 himself; he's the second-most penalized lineman in football, explaining why he was briefly benched for Connor McGovern. Most of the other worries about the heavily-penalized Cowboys aren't as big of a concern as they might seem—they had some unnecessary roughness troubles early on, but that has mostly cleared up, and they do get more than their fair share of offsides calls due to the aggressiveness of their defense—but the holding is a real problem. It has cancelled out big plays and forced Dallas to play behind down-and-distance more often than they would like.
The Cowboys are unlikely to get too much traction on the ground against the 49ers' run defense. That's partially because San Francisco has been so good against the run, ranking second in adjusted line yards and getting to the rusher faster than nearly any other defense in football. But it's also partially because Dallas isn't really using their running backs effectively. Ezekiel Elliott has been limited with a knee injury for much of the second half of the season, while Tony Pollard has been hampered by a plantar fascia injury down the stretch. But even before the foot injury, Elliott was significantly out-touching Pollard, despite having a 4.7% DVOA to Pollard's 17.8%. Pollard, when healthy, has been the far more explosive back of the two—he forces more missed tackles than Elliott (14.2% to 8.1%) and generates more yards after contact (2.5 to 1.7). There's certainly a difference in their styles, and there are situations where you'd want to run Elliott and not Pollard regardless of their overall efficiency, but it's not 100 extra carries for Elliott more.
Don't get us wrong—13th in rushing DVOA is still solid, and it's not like Elliott has been bad this season. But against a San Francisco front that has been so dominant, playing against type by giving extra carries to Pollard on outside runs is likely to be more effective than running Elliott into the teeth of the defense. A little more creativity in the run game would go a long way; Kellen Moore needs to dip a little deeper into his bag of tricks for the postseason.
Advantage: Dallas. Bryan Anger and company have been the best punting unit in the league this season, at +11.9 estimated points of field position above average, and Tony Pollard and Corey Clement have combined for a very solid +5.9 on kickoff returns. They have struggled more on punt returns, ranking 27th with -3.4 points, but that's not enough to overturn everything they actually do well, placing them firmly in the top 10.
The 49ers, on the other hand, have significantly struggled in places. Kickoffs are a nightmare no matter what side of the ball they're on—they're 32nd with -9.8 points when returning, and 30th with -7.0 points when kicking. Their one strength is generally punting, where Mitch Wishnowsky and his unit rank fifth at +5.2, but Wishnowsky is in the concussion protocol and may not be available this weekend; Ryan Winslow would be his replacement.
If teams could pick their own opponents, Dallas would not be playing San Francisco. The Cowboys would much rather have a rematch against an Eagles team they have already beaten twice, or a Cardinals team that has really struggled down the stretch, Week 17 be damned. But then, San Francisco wouldn't have picked Dallas either—they'd much rather be playing a Rams team they have dominated, or a Buccaneers team which may be out of healthy wide receivers. This is a tougher first-round matchup than either squad would really like.
In the end, our numbers favor Dallas. They have been the better team over the course of the full season, and still have a higher DVOA even if you only look at the 49ers' improved second half of the season. The Cowboys are the more consistent team, and do not have weaknesses on the same scale as the 49ers' secondary or quarterback. They are more likely to play a complete game than San Francisco is, which should see them through more often than not. But if the 49ers can play up to their potential, they provide matchup problems the Cowboys may not be able to overcome. This is clearly the game to watch in the NFC this weekend, with massive repercussions on the conference as a whole.
Just like Madden would have wanted it. BAM!
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).
Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.