San Francisco loves to run the football. Kyle Shanahan has built a reputation for being one of the most creative and efficient play designers in the NFL. And he’s done it all with an extremely unstable quarterback situation. The 49ers haven’t missed a beat since moving to Brock Purdy at quarterback. San Francisco’s third starter has essentially picked up where Jimmy Garoppolo left off, driving the Shanahan train and sprinkling in big plays along the way.
But make no mistake, this is a run-heavy offense. And for the Cowboys to find success in Sunday’s divisional round matchup with San Francisco, Dan Quinn’s defense will have to find a way to stop the engine that makes Shanahan’s offense go.
In virtually all situations, the 49ers run the ball at a rate above expectations and it’s working out brilliantly for them. Since Week 13 (a date based on Brock Purdy and Christian McCaffrey’s insertion), San Francisco is ranked No. 1 in the NFL in EPA/play (expected points added) and 10th in success rate (plays that increase win probability).
Their run-heavy approach forces defenses to move players up to stop the run, to which the 49ers respond by throwing the ball downfield into loose coverage.
In the wild-card round, only two of Brock Purdy’s 30 attempts were classified as “tight coverage (defender within 1 –yard)” indicating completions have come easy for the rookie starter.
The Cowboys won’t be able to sit back in shells like they did in against the Buccaneers and just dare their opponent to run. They have to play the run first because it’s the basis for which the 49ers offense runs
“I think our biggest focus this week is tackling,” McCarthy said. “We got to have an excellent tackling performance because they do an outstanding job at breaking tackles.”
The Cowboys have been pretty successful at stopping the run as of late. Measuring the Cowboys run-stopping defense over the same timespan we just measured San Francisco, the Cowboys rank fifth in success rate and second in EPA allowed.
Quinn has made a concentrated effort to replace girth on the defensive interior with speed, length and tenacity. Carlos Watkins and Chauncey Golston are the latest examples of that.
Both players have been standout defensive linemen for Dallas down the stretch and both have essentially bumped their girthier brethren, Neville Gallimore and Quinton Bohanna, down the depth chart.
The 49ers are one of the best rushing teams in the NFL. The Cowboys have become one of the best run-stopping teams in the NFL. Something’s gotta give on Sunday.