Cowboys have to be tough outside tackle box vs 49ers or perish

If this season’s Dallas Cowboys team had an origin story, it would be centered on January 16 of last year. Despite having a better record, a higher seed and home field advantage last season, the 49ers proved to be the more dominant team.

En route to a 23-17 upset, San Francisco manhandled the Cowboys. They pounded the ball, controlled the trenches, opened holes and broke tackles. From a physicality standpoint, it was total domination. Mentally, the Cowboys were broken.

The loss sent Dallas into the off-season questioning their entire makeup. They learned it didn’t matter if they had the better play called or the more explosive players on the field. If they couldn’t win physically, they were destined to get beat.

Toughening up was the talk of the off-season. It drove their decision making in free agency and the draft. It shaped the roster and took them to where they are today: the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.

Presumably, the San Francisco running game will test the edge early and often on Sunday. Their pin-pull running game that isn’t afraid to use skill players to block, creates angles for players and confusion for the opposition.

The Cowboys have shown a weakness at defensive end this season and have particularly struggled with motion at the snap and containment.

While Brock Purdy’s rushing ability is unlikely to invoke fear in a zone-read attack, the Cowboys’ vulnerability is out there and Kyle Shanahan has a knack for attacking vulnerabilities, especially if they can play to his team’s strengths.

The 49ers top rusher, Christian McCaffrey, is at his most efficient running off tackle (5.0 y/c average). Deebo Samuel is even better, averaging 6.1 yards/carry off tackle and 5.8 on outside runs (per sisdatahub).

Controlling the edge doesn’t stop at defensive end, it extends to linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks(dependent on specific run fits). The Cowboys run primarily out nickel looks (extra defensive back instead of third linebacker) so players like Donovan Wilson and Jayron Kearse will have to play big against the run.

The tape is out on Trevon Diggs as well. He may be able to boast a 1.7 missed tackle percentage this season, but that’s only because avoids tackling. Diggs is an extremely disinterested tackler who would much rather play a ball in the air than a ball on the ground.

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Shanahan is going to run at Diggs at much as possible because the film shows it’s a weakness and Diggs’ 16.1 missed tackle percentage from 2021 is too hard to overlook.

The Cowboys’ game plan against Tampa Bay needed to show creativity and execution. They did that. Dallas will need a repeat effort to win in San Francisco but more importantly, they have to show they’re a tougher team than they were last year. That battle will be fought on the edges.

Story originally appeared on Cowboys Wire