Cowboys' Best Weapon: Long Balls to CeeDee Lamb

Dallas Cowboys WR CeeDee Lamb
Dallas Cowboys WR CeeDee Lamb
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Divisional - On Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers meet for the ninth time in the playoffs, tying the all-time NFL record. It's one of the most classic matchups in the history of the league, loaded with historic moments.

Chills, for multiple generations. We added to that legacy last season, though perhaps not in a way Cowboys fans will care to recall—a fourth-quarter comeback, stymied by the clock running out after a quarterback draw. That has been sticking in the craw of Dallas fans all year long, but they'll get their chance for a little revenge this week.

It could hardly come at a better time for Dallas, either. After stumbling a little bit down the stretch, their offense came alive in the win over Tampa Bay. They had their best offensive performance of the season, and their passing DVOA of 116.6% was the fourth-best mark put up this year to date. Dak Prescott and the offense finally looked like the world-beaters we know they're capable of being, and they feel confident as they roll into Santa Clara.

The problem? The 49ers put up a passing DVOA of 122.6% last week, the third-best mark of the season. San Francisco enters the matchup on an 11-game win streak, with the highest weighted DVOA in the league, with an offense that has looked unstoppable since Christian McCaffrey arrived midseason. Kyle Shanahan's scheme looks to be as close to quarterback-proof as any system in the league, and they feel confident as the Cowboys come to town.

Oh, and it's a matchup between the top two defenses in the league, too, neither of whom really want to appear on the "worst passing defense of the year" list. So this should be pretty good.

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.

  DAL SF
DVOA 18.0% (6) 27.6% (2)
WEI DVOA 17.5% (7) 41.4% (1)
Cowboys on Offense
  DAL OFF SF DEF
DVOA 2.9% (15) -14.1% (1)
WEI DVOA 8.1% (8) -11.7% (5)
PASS 12.8% (13) -8.0% (5)
RUSH 1.2% (10) -23.6% (2)
49ers on Offense
  DAL DEF SF OFF
DVOA -13.3% (2) 13.2% (6)
WEI DVOA -8.6% (7) 25.4% (2)
PASS -11.3% (3) 35.% (3)
RUSH -15.7% (5) -0.5% (13)
Special Teams
  DAL SF
DVOA 1.8% (10) 0.2% (15)

If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL

DAL Week-to-Week DVOA

In a world without interceptions, Dak Prescott would be king. He'd be fourth in the league with a 37.2% DVOA and in the top 10 in DYAR despite missing five games this season. When Prescott doesn't turn the ball over, the Cowboys are one of the hardest offenses in football to stop. The problem, of course, is that Prescott has turned the ball over this season at alarming rates. He leads the league in interceptions (15) and interception percentage (3.8%), and was second to Josh Allen in DYAR lost on interceptions (-746). In games where Prescott doesn't throw an interception, the Cowboys win by an average of 24 points. In games where he does turn the ball over, that margin falls to 4.2. Prescott has to, has to, has to play clean if Dallas is going to keep up with San Francisco.

And last week, that's exactly what Prescott did, putting up his best game of the season by far against an admittedly depleted Tampa Bay secondary. Prescott was decisive and surgical, with one of the easier 300-yard passing days you'll see, breaking a streak of seven straight games with a pick. He completed 25 of his 33 passes and could have had more if it wasn't for some unfortunate drops. He set season highs in both DVOA (82.9%) and DYAR (216). He didn't force anything downfield in an attempt to make hero plays; he just made good read after good read and delivered the ball accurately, and the Cowboys won in a laugher. Sometimes, football really is that simple.

There will be opportunities again against the San Francisco defense. While the 49ers still have the top defense in football by our numbers, they remain vulnerable to the deep shot, ranking just 24th with a 36.6% DVOA on passes over 15 yards through the air. Seattle only connected with one deep shot against San Francisco last week, but it was a doozy; a 50-yard bomb to DK Metcalf over Charvarius Ward in the second quarter to take the lead. The 49ers brought pressure on the play, Seattle's offensive line absorbed it, and it Geno Smith had time to find his target downfield. That's how you have to attack the 49ers. They don't give up anything on the ground, and Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw shut down the short areas of the field. But deep? There are opportunities there. The Cowboys need to get CeeDee Lamb isolated against Deommodore Lenoir and stretch the field; Lamb is 10th in DYAR on deep shots and can absolutely do some damage if he's allowed to run free.

When these two teams met in the playoffs last season, we said that if the Cowboys had enough time to pass deep, they would win the ball game. The 49ers are better this season, so we'll modify that to the Cowboys needing to throw deep to have a chance at winning. But that's a matchup Kellen Moore absolutely has to figure out how to exploit. The Cowboys' best path to victory is to punch the 49ers in the mouth with explosive deep shots, take a lead, and dare San Francisco's rookie quarterback to make enough plays to keep them in the game.

To have that opportunity, of course, Prescott needs to stay upright. That has been a problem for teams all year against the 49ers' front four, now fully healthy with Arik Armstead and Javon Kinlaw back in the middle. Nick Bosa led the league in sacks and pressures and quarterback knockdowns, but he isn't a one-man show. The Seahawks didn't allow a single pressure from Bosa last week (though he made several plays in the run game), but the focus on stopping him meant that Armstead, Charles Omenihu, and Samsom Ebukam managed to tee off on Smith during the second half, eventually forcing the fumble that turned a close game into a rout.

The Cowboys are 28th in Pass Block Win Rate this season and have to shuffle their offensive line again with Jason Peters getting hurt against Tampa Bay. That will kick Tyler Smith back out to left tackle, where he has played very well this season, and Connor McGovern back in to left guard, which is more of a problem. Between McGovern and center Tyler Biadasz, there is a weakness at the center of Dallas' offensive line; they combined for 46 blown blocks and a blown block rate of 2.5% this season. They were, again, the weak link against Tampa Bay, allowing a sack, two quarterback hits, four hurries, and seven pressures up the gut. The Cowboys may want to consider sitting in more max protect looks, trusting Lamb, Michael Gallup, and Dalton Schultz to get open on their own, and Prescott to find the right throw given time. Because if they don't have an answer for the 49ers' pass rush, it's going to be a long day.

And yes, we know we sound like a broken record here, but the Cowboys are better with Tony Pollard in the game rather than Ezekiel Elliott. Pollard has been more explosive, averages more yards both before and after contact, and forces significantly more missed and broken tackles than Elliott. The Cowboys insist on using them both roughly equally, which does keep both players fresh. But the Cowboys would likely have more success, both on the ground and in the air, if they tipped that balance towards Pollard a little more.

WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL

SF Week-to-Week DVOA

Brock Purdy had the second-best playoff game for a rookie in the history of DYAR last week. But was Purdy actually that good, or is he just riding the coattails of Shanahan's scheme to the top?

The answer, as it almost always is, is a little of both. Purdy had some rough moments in the first half, missing some open receivers and generally looking a little rattled. He mostly calmed down in the second half, but Seattle had some success pressuring him, causing him to roll out to his left and float deep shots out of bounds. It wasn't a terrible day by any stretch of the imagination, and certainly not worth the sky-is-falling concern that has been spreading in some circles, but Purdy's -0.5% CPOE is somewhat less than ideal. There were moments where he looked a little lost against the Seattle front, and the Seahawks may have missed a few tricks in sending extra guys to challenge him. I think it's fair to call it Purdy's worst game since his first start against Tampa Bay over a month ago.

There's two ways to look at that. One is that there is an opportunity for Dallas to pressure Purdy into making more rookie-like mistakes. He has developed a tendency of bailing from pressure to his left, and while his mobility keeps those plays alive, the Cowboys' pass rush is on a level San Francisco has not seen during their run of success. The Cowboys are second in the league with a 52% Pass Rush Win Rate an 8.9% adjusted sack rate, both behind Philadelphia. Micah Parsons is a beast, and he's going to best his man at least a couple times in this game, even if that's Trent Williams in a head-to-head match that's worth the price of admission. The Cowboys are an aggressive, downhill front, and while they slowed down some over the back half of the season, they are more than capable of blowing up a game plan all by themselves.

The matchup between Dan Quinn and Kyle Shanahan is a great one, as is the matchup between Dallas's second-ranked pass rush and San Francisco's third-ranked pass protection. Last year, the advantage went to Shanahan, as Jimmy Garoppolo was kept clean throughout the wild-card playoff game, but Quinn will be looking to get some revenge a year later. He likes sending Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence and the rest of the rushers on stunts, but San Francisco has actually been in the upper tier in defending against stunts this season. That being said, Purdy has struggled to identify some pre-snap looks this season, instead relying on his mobility to scramble himself out of trouble. While that has worked so far, Quinn is a master of using personnel to disguise coverage and send pressure from different areas. Don't expect a lot of blitzing, but expect Quinn to throw everything and the kitchen sink at Purdy, bringing pressure from strange locations and asking the rookie to adapt on the fly. Purdy hasn't been challenged to a significant extent yet; Quinn is going to do everything in his power to make him show he can stand and deliver in less-than-ideal circumstances.

The other way to look at it, of course, is that Purdy had arguably his worst game as a passer and still managed to produce the third-biggest passing day in 49ers playoff history. Purdy managed to throw for 332 yards with 192 passing DYAR on an off day. Yes, that's inflated because he gets to target Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle and Christian McCaffrey, but those guys aren't going anywhere before Sunday's game!

Because of the Shanahan scheme, Purdy has been given some of the easiest throws in the league. Per Next Gen Stats, he has an expected completion percentage of 69.0% this season. That's the second-highest in the league, behind only … Jimmy Garoppolo. Against the Seahawks, about one-third of Purdy's targets went to receivers with at least 5 yards of separation. No scheme in the league is better at getting receivers running wide-open. And Purdy, to his credit, has been finding those receivers and making the right decision week after week. He has also excelled at extending plays, giving his receivers time to find the holes and gain that separation. That's all Shanahan really wants. His scheme gets people open, and he just wants a passer who can deliver the ball to them without throwing a couple of crazy interceptions to linebackers every game, or curling up into a ball the second the pass protection breaks down. And, for all the physical limitations Purdy has, he has been able to deliver that.

This is where things could get out of hand for the Cowboys. They're third overall in pass defense, but they're 32nd in covering No. 2 receivers (28.9% DVOA) and 21st covering running backs (5.3%). They have also allowed the 11th-most yards after the catch. None of these are good weaknesses against the 49ers, who move their targets all over the formation, find mismatches, and deliver short-to-intermediate passes for tons of YAC. And since Purdy has taken over, Shanahan has started working in more bootleg concepts, giving those receivers more time to work downfield. Look for the 49ers to try to isolate Anthony Barr and Leighton Vander Esch, both of whom are going to have serious issues if asked to cover McCaffrey or Samuel coming out of the backfield; they lack the lateral movement to keep up with the level of playmakers San Francisco can throw at them. Also, watch for Jayron Kearse's health; he says he'll be good after the knee injury he suffered in Tampa Bay, but expect the 49ers to test that early and often if he plays.

Quinn will have his work set out for him matching Shanahan's personnel moves. With Samuel and McCaffrey being able to line up anywhere in the formation, just identifying the problem positions is already a challenge, much less figuring out how to match up against them. Quinn has a lot of experience working with Shanahan in Atlanta; there are few defensive coordinators in the league who have seen more of this offense on a daily basis. With all due respect to Prescott and Bosa, this game is far more interesting when the 49ers have the ball, as two of the best minds in the game jab at one another. Perhaps the advantage goes to the 49ers, with two extra days to prepare?

SPECIAL TEAMS

Brett Maher is good. Really, we mean it. Dallas was eighth in field goal/extra point value this season, and Maher has one of the more powerful legs in the league. There have been a number of attempts to explain just why Maher missed four extra points against Tampa Bay—the refs swiping a piece of painted grass that Bryan Anger was attempting to use as a guide on where to set up, the first kicks out of bounds requiring them to use a third K ball fresh out of the box, and so forth. Whatever the reason, Maher is better than he was on Monday, and I'd expect him to be better again this week. I mean, could he possibly be worse? At any rate, over the course of a full season, he has been significantly better than Robbie Gould; under normal circumstances, you'd favor Dallas if things came down to a last-second field goal. Under normal circumstances, that is.

This is also a battle of two of the top 11 punt returners in the league by our numbers. San Francisco has Ray-Ray McCloud, third in the league at 10.8 yards per return. He'll be up against former USFL MVP and this year's Pro Bowler Kavontae Turpin, just behind him at 10.4 yards per return. Our numbers slightly prefer McCloud, but Turpin has the longer punt return of the two. Either way, Mitch Wishnowsky and Bryan Anger will have their work cut out for them.

OUTLOOK

Last week, it was hard to find a way Seattle could match up against San Francisco; an upset victory there would have been more about the 49ers losing than the Seahawks winning. That is very much not the case this week. The Cowboys are the worst of the three potential matchups the 49ers could have had in the divisional round; they'd much rather be preparing for the Vikings or Buccaneers this week.

When the Cowboys are at their best, they are one of our Big Six teams, right up there with the very best of the best and a real Super Bowl contender. And on Monday night, they were pretty much the peak of what they can be, with the offense firing on all cylinders and the defense suffocating any hopes of a comeback. If they can keep Prescott clean in the pocket and muddle Purdy, and if they can hit their deep shots while limiting San Francisco's YAC, then there's no reason the Cowboys can't win this game.

The problem is the Cowboys aren't that version of the Cowboys on a consistent basis. They have fallen from a 27.8% DVOA over the first half of the season to 10.2% since Week 10; still good, but on a clear different level than the 49ers. San Francisco's DVOA since Week 10 is 50.4%, and they have been playing their A game far more often than Dallas has been. An upset is very much on the table, but the 49ers have been the better team on a regular basis for over two months now. We project recent form will hold out, and San Francisco will advance to the NFC Championship Game.

 

 

 

STATS EXPLAINED

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.

Comments

4 comments, Last at 22 Jan 2023, 1:06pm

#1 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jan 20, 2023 - 1:31pm

We added to that legacy last season

I mean, not really. We never settled whether Dak or Garoppolo could choke harder (they tied); all we settled was that McCarthy is better at coming up small than Shanahan is.

It was like a Cubs/Indians series.

Points: -1

#2 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jan 20, 2023 - 1:33pm

In a world without interceptions, Dak Prescott would be king. 

You're doing Jameis Winston dirty.

Points: 3

#3 by Kaepernicus // Jan 20, 2023 - 4:24pm

I think the Cowboys biggest offensive key in this game is the running game. If they can perform at a similar level or better than the Seahawks last week they will be able to use all of their play action concepts with impunity and start attacking the weak spots in the SF secondary. It will be interesting to see what Ryans decides to do with Lamb. Last year the most productive receiver on the Cowboys was clearly Amari Cooper beating corners 1 on 1. All of the teams that have given the 49ers trouble down the stretch have been able to run productively and/or had multiple receiving threats. The Raiders were a tough match up because they had Adams, Renfrow, Jacobs, and Waller all playing some of their best games of the season together.

On defense it will be all about pressuring Purdy and forcing TOs. I think the closest thing he has seen to the Dallas pass rush was probably the Commies with Chase Young back in the mix. SF didn't score until a 71 yard run in the second quarter and their rushing attack was generally bad. Purdy took 3 sacks, mostly from the interior rushers, and threw a pick. People keep talking about his tendency to roll left as if it is his first move. Against the Raiders and Bucs he was frequently stepping up in the pocket or escaping right. The reason he has moved left is because of the interior pass rushers. The Seahawks ran multiple bear fronts to force that. The absolute strongest parts of the 49ers offensive line are their tackles. The worst part of the Dallas pass rush is the interior.

If they do those things I think the Cowboys win. It will be really interesting to see what Shanahan decides to do with Parsons. Last year he ran straight at him and wore him down. I am expecting to see a ton of 21 personnel with I formation passing plays. Should be a good game.

 

Points: 4

#4 by Romodini // Jan 22, 2023 - 1:06pm

Last year I recall that their best hope was deep balls to Amari Cooper, and that didn't turn out so great. 

One unmentioned bit of info is that the game will be officiated by Bill Vinovich, who calls the least amount of penalties. The Cowboys would love to have had him last year. I expect lots of uncalled holding on both sides and the corners getting away with some DPI. Cowboys honestly might need that to win. Of course, Vinovich's crew might also pull another 2018 no-call. I'd prefer any scenario, including the Cowboys getting blown out, to that.

 

Points: 0

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