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Cowboys Playoff Preview: Time to find out if the 2021 Cowboys are different

Photo: Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire

Cowboys Playoff Preview: Time to find out if the 2021 Cowboys are different

After a grueling 18-week season, the playoffs have arrived and it is time to find out if this year’s Cowboys are different. Whether or not they are up to the challenge will be revealed by Sunday evening.

The Cowboys’ old friend from the 1990s comes to Arlington for a Wild Card matchup that is, according to many, the most anticipated matchup of the NFL’s Super Wild Card Weekend. The San Francisco 49ers head into Arlington having won seven of their last nine games, including a thrilling Week 18 win in Los Angeles in a win-or-go-home situation. San Francisco’s win indirectly bumped the Cowboys up to the third seed in the NFC, leading to this matchup in the first round.

The discourse surrounding this matchup throughout the week has been interesting on both sides for many reasons. In my opinion, the main reason is this: this is going to be a terrific playoff game that will be seared into both fanbases’ memories (for better or for worse).

As great and highly anticipated as this matchup is, I believe that Dallas has so much more riding on this game from so many angles. The Cowboys’ playoff record in the last quarter century is, well, not great. The stigma of their lack of recent playoff success follows them every year and the noise gets louder every year. Should they lose Sunday, that noise will be deafening. There is little excuse for this team to not make noise in the playoffs and a first-round exit would be colossal disappointment.

This team has its franchise quarterback with a plethora of weapons, an offensive line with Pro Bowlers and All-Pros, a defense with two All-Pros and talent/depth across the board, a good head coach, and two coordinators that are getting head coaching interviews and are sure to be poached by other franchises. Tack on to all of that: this team is about as healthy as you could ask for heading into mid-January. It is all on the table and it is all on the line. Let’s take a look at how they match up:

Cowboys Offense vs. Niners Defense

San Francisco’s defense, simply put, could present some serious problems for the Cowboys, especially up front. The Niners’ defense is built around a terrific front seven that they rode to the Super Bowl two seasons ago. Fred Warner is one of the best linebackers in all of football and Nick Bosa is a terrific edge. Both are All-Pro caliber players. It doesn’t just start and end with them, as Arik Armstead is one of the best interior defenders in football and Arden Key has developed into a nice player as well.

The Niners don’t play much man coverage, and part of that is due to their weakness: their secondary. With Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt in the back end at safety, they need to do their part given the Niners’ situation at cornerback. San Francisco is severely lacking at the corner position and that is absolutely an area that can be exploited by Dallas, especially with the weapons Dallas has on the outside. The Niners defense leads the league in yards lost due to defensive pass interference, so look for Dak Prescott to attack that secondary early and often.

There’s been plenty of discussion about the Cowboys’ offensive slump, and while some of it has been overblown a bit, Prescott has a chance to put a lot of that to rest. Dallas’ offensive gameplan needs to be similar to what it was against Tampa Bay: heavy play action, lean heavily on the passing attack, and don’t force the run. It yielded great results.

Any time Dallas “feeds Zeke,” it’s a victory for San Francisco. Early down runs have often put Dallas behind the sticks, resulting in more difficult third down situations for Prescott. Per @CowboysStats on Twitter, Dallas’ rush offense ranks 11th in EPA/play on first and second down. The Niners’ run defense on first and second down is 2nd in EPA/play. Take a look at where the units rank in EPA/play on first and second down passes: Dallas’ pass offense ranks 4th and San Francisco’s pass defense ranks 20th. The Niners also rank 27th in EPA/play allowed on passes thrown past the line of scrimmage.

What all of this means is that Dallas needs to not establish the run, but establish the pass. There is a clear weakness in San Francisco’s defense and running Ezekiel Elliott into a brick wall will do nothing but hurt the Dallas offense. The Cowboys are also the most penalized team in the NFL. Penalties have been backbreaking for Dallas at times, and that cannot rear its ugly head Sunday.

In order to do their part, the Dallas offense needs to do three things: take advantage of San Francisco’s secondary, finish drives in the red zone, and take care of the ball. I already highlighted the importance of leaning on the passing attack, but finishing drives is key. Dallas’ red zone offense sputtered most of the season (and was a serious concern at the midway point of the season) but in the back half of the season has found its footing. Dallas now ranks 5th in red zone touchdown percentage and has converted 10 straight red zone opportunities into touchdowns.

The Dallas offense ranks 11th in turnovers and San Francisco’s defense has struggled to take the ball away, ranking 19th in takeaways. The margins are even thinner in the playoffs and Dallas cannot afford to lose the turnover battle. The Cowboys offense needs to be dialed in Sunday.

Cowboys Defense vs. Niners offense

This is one of the most intriguing unit matchups of the playoff weekend. The Niners have put together a very efficient offense despite subpar quarterback play and the Cowboys defense has been one of the biggest surprises in football in 2021. San Francisco’s offense is built around Kyle Shanahan’s outside zone rush attack that is riddled with all sorts of misdirection. Once you mix in some play action behind that rushing attack, it gives all defenses fits. During their 7-2 stretch to end the season, the Niners’ offense ranked 5th in EPA/play, 3rd in dropback EPA, and 8th in rush EPA. Their offense is incredibly efficient.

The Niners offense is one of the best in football at racking up yards after the catch, and a lot of that starts with Deebo Samuel. Samuel is one of the best receivers in the game and racked up over 1700 yards from scrimmage and 14 touchdowns this season. The Niners rank 8th in the NFL in yards after the catch and Samuel ranks 2nd in the NFL in yards after a catch. Add in the superstar tight end George Kittle, who ranked 16th in the NFL in yards after the catch, and you officially have a problem.

The Niners’ offense is decent at a lot of things, but are absolutely elite in two key categories: red zone touchdown percentage and explosive plays. Dallas’ defense ranks 21st and 28th in those categories, respectively. The Cowboys need to keep the explosive plays at an absolute minimum. That will require sound assignment football and strong play from Dallas’ edge defenders. If Dallas ever needed a big game from Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence, this is the one.

San Francisco’s All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams is expected to play after missing last week’s game against the Rams. His matchup against Dallas’ edge defenders is going to be one of the most important battles for Dallas to win. With Shanahan’s outside zone rushing attack, setting the edge is going to be as crucial as ever and Micah Parsons may be relied upon as a linebacker much more than normal this week given Dallas’ struggles at the linebacker position.

Dan Quinn will be rolling out a ton of dime or nickel looks to match San Francisco’s personnel, so the burden will likely fall on Parsons to snuff out the misdirection. Jayron Kearse and Donovan Wilson are both going to be called upon to support the defense in the box and probably cover Kittle. Dallas is going to need a strong performance from its second-level defenders, and given the outside nature of the Niners’ rushing attack, even the cornerbacks will need to be strong in run support.

One key for Dallas is to get out to an early lead and force the Niners to get out of their rushing attack. The more Jimmy Garoppolo has to pass the ball, the higher Dallas’ chances of victory get. The Cowboys pass rush when whole is absolutely elite, and Garoppolo is not evasive against pressure. He ranks 25th in the league in pressure-to-sack percentage. Dallas’ three terrific pass rushers in Parsons, Gregory, and Lawrence will all need to make an impact Sunday.

The Cowboys’ defense has been opportunistic all season, leading the league in takeaways, and has been terrific on third down, ranking 2nd in third down defense. Dallas needs to be great in both of these areas Sunday. Garoppolo will present you a few opportunities to turn the game on its head with a takeaway and those opportunities need to be cashed in.

Prediction

This will be an incredible playoff game between two very good teams that have their sights set on a championship. The Cowboys have an opportunity to change their playoff narrative under this new regime and have the talent to do so. This will be a back-and-forth affair between two very good offenses and it will come down to who cashes in their opportunities when they present themselves. I think the Cowboys offense takes advantage of the San Francisco secondary and takes care of business while the Dallas defense will do just enough to keep the Niners’ elite weapons like Samuel and Kittle at bay.

In the playoffs, it often comes down to how special your quarterback is, and the Cowboys have a massive advantage in that category. I’ve got the Cowboys in a tightly contested playoff bout.

Nate’s Take: Cowboys 27 Niners 21

Staff Writer covering the Dallas Cowboys and Co-Host of The Victory Avenue Podcast

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