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Science Lab: Cowboys Can Make It Ugly for Purdy

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Patrik [No C] Walker joined the Dallas Cowboys digital media group as a staff writer and media personality in July 2022, having professionally covered the NFL and, more specifically, the Cowboys since 2007.

He most recently did so for CBS Sports by way of 247Sports, where he also spent time delving into collegiate recruiting as well – ultimately becoming well-known for his level of unapologetic objectivity labeled by many as his own unique brand of football "science".

Welcome to "The Science Lab", a place where football facts and in-depth analysis always triumph over feelings.

FRISCO, TX — Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt. That line, penned from the inkwell of William Shakespeare, embodies what's happening outside of the Dallas Cowboys headquarters as they shift their eyes to the San Francisco 49ers.

Under no circumstances, however, do coaches and/or players have the luxury to allow even the smallest amount of it to enter their mindspace.

They're not stressed about the shortened week either, considering they're currently 2-0 this season on short weeks that follow Monday Night Football and, quiet as it's kept, head coach Mike McCarthy is 5-1 in his last six outings using that same metric.

The good news for all who are actually involved in the matchup waiting in the NFC Divisional Round is that the Cowboys are still locked in, possessed by the same mentality that carried them to a decisive evisceration of the almighty Tom Brady on Monday evening.

As McCarthy so eloquently stated on Tuesday afternoon, the Cowboys have only earned one win to guarantee themselves four more quarters.

That's it, period (or, rather, exclamation point).

This week isn't entirely dissimilar from what they heard all of last week from every corner of the free world that follows the sport of professional football, though: the Cowboys will be one-and-done. The only difference is, now, the chance they apparently don't stand comes against the 49ers, winners of 11 straight games entering this weekend.

They'll also enter the fight as underdogs at Levi's Stadium but, in speaking with players in the locker room and the coaching staff, they could not care less about that any more than they do about the fact that they're forced to get ready on a short schedule while the 49ers — who played last Saturday — get an extra two days to prepare as hosts for the Cowboys.

"Sweet are the uses of adversity which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head." - Shakespeare

There is no way to objectively view this matchup as anything other than two NFL (not just NFC) juggernauts locking horns, and not the one-sided affair many are claiming it to be.

For every strength and weapon the 49ers possess, of which there are many in all three phases, the Cowboys own an equally lethal weapon to equal damage from both a defensive stance and when counterpunching after a slipped jab or hook.

It's a battle led by two head coaches that know each other very well, Kyle Shanahan having worked under Dan Quinn in their time with the Atlanta Falcons that ended with Shanahan's offense being on the receiving end of the infamous 28-3 collapse steered at the hands of, guess who, Tom Brady.

Shanahan bolted for the 49ers in the offseason to follow, and Quinn's reign in Atlanta went on to end in 2020 before joining the Cowboys in his current post ahead of the 2021 season.This is only the second time the two will square off, and Shanahan is 1-0 in the series after running the Cowboys out of AT&T Stadium in last year's wild card clash.

Quinn, with the aid of Kellen Moore (who just put Todd Bowles, one of the best defensive minds in the NFL, in a blender for four quarters), is hoping to even things out en route to the first Cowboys appearance in the NFC Championship Game in 27 years.

It all begins with decoding the 49ers, though, so let's get to the science of it all.

Strength of Schedule:

It's fair to give roses to the 49ers for finishing with a 13-4 record, regardless of the circumstances, but it's made that much more impressive in seeing them accomplish the feat with their third-string quarterback under center, having lost both Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo to season-ending injuries this season.

Oh, and the guy under center is a rookie, and one who garnered the label as this year's Mr. Irrelevant after becoming the final (262nd-overall) pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

It's also fair to ask when/if the magic is real or simply a well-disguised illusion with Shanahan doing his best impression of either David Copperfield or the guy at the train or bus terminal who keeps you guessing incorrectly in his obviously rigged game of Three-Card Monte.

Given how Shanahan deploys his weapons on offense, it feels more like the latter, because the name of the game is to guess which one gets the ball on any given play — making it more challenging to eliminate just one and, as such, buying time for Purdy to remain mistake-free in a scheme that depends heavily on YAC (more on that in a bit).

Here's a glance at the teams Purdy and the Niners have been victorious against in the regular season, along with their season record:

  • Dolphins: 9-8
  • Buccaneers: 8-9
  • Seahawks (2x): 9-8
  • Commanders: 8-8-1
  • Raiders: 6-11
  • Cardinals: 4-13

That's a combined record of 44-57-1, for those keeping count at home, and I know you are. And, now, the defensive rankings from 2022 for those teams (points allowed per game):

  • Dolphins: 24th
  • Buccaneers: 13th
  • Seahawks (2x): 25th
  • Commanders: 7th
  • Raiders: 26th
  • Cardinals: 31st

That's an average defensive ranking of 22nd-overall (21.57) and only one of these teams are in the top-10 in points allowed per game, the Commanders being it, while five four of the five rank 24th or worst in the entire league.

With the weaponry Purdy has at his disposal, and the defense to match in holding those same underperforming teams to minimal points, the season has gone exactly as it should've for the 49ers. See bad team, beat bad team, rinse and repeat; and kudos for being able to do it, but where's the beef in that sandwich?

Purdy now faces the fifth-best defense in the league in stinginess (20.1 ppg allowed), top-10 in red zone defense and No. 1 in the NFL in takeaways per game (1.9). This means the Cowboys are far and away the most dominant and physical defensive unit the rookie quarterback has lined up against this season, all things considered.

You could also look at defensive EPA (Expected Points Added) as a metric to prove this, a measurement of how well offenses perform against a defense versus what the expectation was going into the game — on a play-to-play basis.

  • Dolphins: 24th total D/EPA, 26th pass defense
  • Buccaneers: 13th (total D/EPA), 12th pass defense
  • Seahawks (2x): 25th (total D/EPA), 19th pass defense
  • Commanders: 5th (total D/EPA), 9th pass defense
  • Raiders: 30th (total D/EPA), 31st pass defense
  • Cardinals: 20th (total D/EPA), 19th pass defense

… and Dallas?

  • Cowboys: 2nd (total D/EPA), 4th pass defense

The biggest test of Purdy's … magical … rookie season has officially arrived.

"Heavy is the head that wears the crown." - Shakespeare

Scoring Trend (Quarterly):

This was an interesting tidbit to come across, particularly through the lens of which team needs a fast start most. In discovering the Cowboys finished top-5 in points scored per game in the first quarter, it led me to dig and find out where the 49ers stood by comparison.

I've laid out the points scored per quarter for each team side-by-side below.

  • 49ers Offense: 5.1 (Q1), 9.2 (Q2), 5.3 (Q3), 7.1 (Q4)
  • Cowboys Offense: 5.4 (Q1), 8.1 (Q2), 6.2 (Q3), 8.0 (Q4)

As you can see here, the Cowboys often get out to a faster start than the 49ers, and typically finish stronger in the final quarter/half as well. All of this requires the context of film as well to fully understand what situations each club faced in any respective game, but the numbers tell enough of the story — aiming a bullseye at when Shanahan and his group usually win games.

It's in the second quarter.

In their 13 wins, not counting the postseason so far, they've outscored opponents to the tune of a whopping 135-36 in the second quarter of games. When they went up against the Seahawks in the wild card, a team that had them on the ropes for three quarters, they were outscored in the second quarter by only mustering six points but allowing 17; and that became a back-alley brawl for the Niners before the Seahawks fell apart due to … wait for it … self-inflicted wounds.

Sound familiar?

If you're wondering how the 49ers defense, elite in its own right, fares on a quarterly basis, have a look:

  • 49ers Defense: 3.2 (Q1), 5.0 (Q2), 4.1 (Q3), 4.1 (Q4)
  • Cowboys Defense: 3.6 (Q1), 7.2 (Q2), 4.7 (Q3), 4.2 (Q4)

This reveals a point of concern for Dallas, seeing as I just told you the goal is to disallow the 49ers offense from surging in the second quarter, which also happens to be the quarter when Dallas allows the most points in a game on a weekly basis.

The defense in San Francisco is also good at capping second-quarter surges from opposing teams, making that session in particular the one that might be the turning point of the entire fight.

Eliminate the self-inflicted wounds, win the second quarter and keep with the trend that proves the Cowboys usually put up more points in the third and fourth quarters than the Niners can usually muster (e.g., keep Green Bay and Jacksonville in the forefront of the brain) and the upset will be there for the taking.

Shanahan's defense (rather, DeMeco Ryans') did its job in three of their four losses this season, Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs being the sole outlier with a 44-point bomb dropped on them, but the offense (pre-Purdy) mustered only 14.25 points over the span of those four losses.

Rattle Purdy like the Bears, Broncos, Falcons (yes, they lost to those three teams but tell me more about who Dallas lost to, please) and Chiefs did Lance and Garoppolo and the rest will fall into place in the City of Miners.

"All that glitters is not gold." - Shakespeare

Pass defense:

It's no secret the 49ers have one of the best defenses in the league, in every category (hell, I just reminded you a few minutes ago), so these numbers aren't going to somehow electrocute you. It simply is what it is, and they simply are what they are: damn good at playing defense.

  • 20 passing TDs allowed (t-3rd)
  • 20 interceptions (t-1st)
  • 44 sacks (t-6th), 2.6 sacks per game

But while that's true and they are worthy of praise, it's also true they rarely play quarterbacks capable of running up the scoreboard and, when they do, they've struggled (i.e., Mahomes).

To that point, here's a list of quarterbacks the 49ers have played in 2022:

  • Justin Fields
  • Geno Smith
  • Russell Wilson
  • Matthew Stafford
  • Baker Mayfield/P.J. Walker
  • Marcus Mariota
  • Patrick Mahomes
  • Justin Herbert
  • Colt McCoy
  • Andy Dalton
  • Tua Tagovailoa
  • Tom Brady
  • Taylor Heinicke
  • Jarrett Stidham
  • David Blough/Trace McSorley

Of this group, which ones have an ability equal or greater than Dak Prescott?

If you can answer that question objectively, you'll likely mirror my answer in identifying Mahomes and Brady, and I'll leave some of the others for you to debate on social media (e.g., Herbert, Tagovailoa, a healthy Stafford) but if you place Mahomes and Brady in the rarefied air that Prescott has tapped into at times — like he did against Brady on Sunday — even adding a healthy Stafford generates a very low percentage of stout quarterbacks who have faced the Niners.

Then there's the fact Ryans prefers to deploy zone coverage on defense.

Mind you, he's very capable of sending man coverage looks on more than one occasion, but that's not been the bread-and-butter for that defense. It's been zone, and Prescott has thrived when facing zone reads, particularly this season.

Following his return from injury, he's led the league in both success rate and percentage of completed passes above expected versus zone coverage, per Next Gen Stats, evidenced by Prescott completing all 16 of his passes against the Eagles' zone looks for 168 yards and a touchdown.

And when they do switch to man coverage, well, you saw what D.K. Metcalf did to Jimmie Ward.

If the offensive line for the Cowboys can hold up against Nick Bosa and Co., Prescott will have the edge here, pun intended, and in a big way; and especially if the run has been established for him to utilize the play-action pass off of (further handcuffing Bosa and the Niners elite pass rush).

"The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves." - Shakespeare

Run defense:

Get ready for a fight here, and I'm talking about wrapping fists and dipping the wraps in broken glass like you're trying to take down Tong Po with the best kickboxing moves you're capable of.

Fact is, the 49ers don't allow running backs to have a good day against them. They haven't allowed a single 100-yard outing from any halfback this season or in the wild card round, and that's concerning for a Cowboys team that does thrive, more often than not, on establishing the run to set up the pass. All hope isn't lost in this regard though, and it's because while many can steal blueprints and not have the tools to exercise them, the Cowboys do.

In looking at what the Chiefs did, there's something for offensive coordinator Kellen Moore to replicate on Sunday, and that's the fact Kansas City used Mecole Hardman as a quasi-halfback and he took two handoffs into the end zone.

  • 1,321 rushing yards allowed per game (1st), 77.7 per game
  • 3.4 rushing yards allowed per carry (t-1st)

Studying the film of the Falcons and Raiders games will reveal some tells as well, because the former logged the highest rushing yard tally against the 49ers of any team this season (> 150 rushing yards) and they did it by acting as a hydra — Marcus Mariota rushing for 50 yards to keep San Francisco's defense threatened by his mobility enough to free up his RB tandem to split the remaining production amongst themselves.

As for the Raiders, the team that took Purdy and his excelsior defense to overtime and narrowly lost a game they should've won, it was Stidham rushing for 37 yards on seven attempts while Josh Jacobs and Brandon Bolden combined for 101 total rushing yards.

They also lost to the Bears, whose rushing attack features Fields' mobility.

I sense a theme here. You do as well, don't you? Sure you do. You feel it in your bones. Prescott needs to keep using his legs like he did against the Buccaneers, period.

That will inherently help soften the A and B gaps for Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard to operate, but it's also key to make sure both are getting their shots in space as well. Get Pollard targeted out of the backfield to force the linebackers out of the equation as the game rolls along when the tight ends, CeeDee Lamb and T.Y. Hilton want to make their presence felt between the hashes with slants and crosses.

Shanahan will use the same tactic against the Cowboys defense, so repay the favor.

"Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it." - Shakespeare

Pass offense:

The mission, should the Cowboys choose to accept it, is to force Purdy into being the hero and throwing 35 times or more, but there are admittedly levels to this advice.

Make sure the large majority of those throws are 10 yards deep or greater, as opposed to letting him dink and dunk all day long to set up what he really wants to see happen: YAC (and I'm not talking about Hennessy). The Niners thrive on yards after the catch, and that's saying the least. When a team features players like Deebo Samuel, Christian McCaffrey and George Kittle, you can bet the plan is to get the ball in their hands quickly and let them do the rest.

I mean, you could look at that 74-yard touchdown in the box score following the Niners victory over the Seahawks and think, "Wow, Purdy with the big play!" … but it was actually a pass to Samuel in the flat that turned into a 74-yarder.

Meanwhile, even with time in the pocket on a separate play, he missed Samuel on a crossing route deep across the middle with nothing but green in front of him and instead made the inexperienced mistake of heaving it to Brandon Aiyuk far downfield with a defender all over him.

That was nearly an interception on the one-yard line with the Seahawks still threatening the upset.

  • 4049 total passing yards (13th), 238.2 per game
  • 30 passing TDs (t-3rd with Vikings, Dolphins, Seahawks)
  • 9 INTs thrown (t-3rd fewest)

Shanahan is protecting Purdy from both the opposing pass rush and from his own rookie mind by using quick passes to playmakers who can make defenders miss or, at times, run through them. The Cowboys saw that formula last week, at least in the capacity of a quick-release by Brady, and switched to more of a press coverage to disrupt the timing of Brady's throws.

If it worked against Brady, don't tell me it won't work against a rookie QB. Scheme it, execute it, and enjoy what happens thereafter: third-and-longs, sacks, pressures and opportunities for takeaways (what the Cowboys do best).

​​"Be great in act, as you have been in thought." - Shakespeare

Run offense:

Being no stranger to what San Francisco can do on the ground, seeing as the Cowboys were tossed from the playoffs last January because of it, they know going into this matchup what they're up against. It's Samuel being used in the quick-pass game as a quasi-RB but, with the addition of McCaffrey, the task of stopping the Niners run game becomes exponentially more difficult.

You know, it's a good thing they traded for Johnathan Hankins and kept Leighton Vander Esch around this season, both returning in stellar fashion against Brady and the Bucs, because you're going to need both to be on their game to help clog the middle and to lead the linebackers in playing sideline to sideline (LVE).

  • 2,360 total rushing yards (7th), 138.8 per game
  • 4.7 yards per rushing attempt (t-7th)
  • 19 rushing gains 20+ yards (4th)
  • 4 rushing gains 40+ yards (t-4th)

Tackling discipline is paramount here. Again, be it in the pass game or the run game, it's all about YAC for the Niners. McCaffrey has stolen many an ankle in his career, and so has Samuel, but Samuel will also lay the boom on any defender not willing to let him know early that the pendulum swings both ways; and I've never seen Vander Esch get mowed through.

I don't suspect that trend ends on Sunday for the Wolf Hunter.

Another great game from Anthony Barr and Damone Clark will go a long way in helping Vander Esch bottle up the rushing attack behind Hankins, DeMarcus Lawrence and Micah Parsons, and the Cowboys have no shortage of pass rushers to throw at Purdy in third-and-long situations. It will have to be earned though but, at this point, Quinn's group knows all too well that pass rush is indeed a privilege, and it starts with making sure teams aren't allowed to run the ball.

Purdy is set up to feel great entering this matchup, so make him understand early he has no reason by containing the run game and daring him to prove he's ready to battle a pack of animals — lions, jaguars, take your pick.

And considering he has tallied only 13 combined rushing yards in his 10 NFL starts, don't sell out to stop that portion of his game. Be aware of it, absolutely, but don't let a couple gains here and there get you off of your spot, seeing as that won't win this game.

The playmakers will.

"He jests at scars that never felt a wound." - Shakespeare

Red Zone Efficiency:

This all ties together, if you're following the trends I'm laying bare in front of you.

Without YAC, the leverage shifts wildly in favor of the Cowboys, because even chunk plays won't be as valuable if they don't result in a touchdown on that very play. Much like the Buccaneers, the Niners aren't exactly fantastic at punching the ball in once they get into the opposing red zone. If anything, mathematically speaking, they're literally below average, something Prescott and the offense know nothing about being.

  • 49ers RZ Offense: 34/63 attempts (53.62%) — 17th
  • Cowboys RZ Offense: 40/56 attempts (71.4%) — ranked 1st

If the Cowboys can keep the playmakers out of the end zone on chunk plays and force Purdy into the crucible of red zone progressions/reads/diagnostics, the rookie will more than likely find it difficult to process it all in a window of time that's far slimmer than when he's operating on his own 30-yard line with 70 yards to work with. Contrarily, all the Cowboys have to do is get into the red zone and their chances of scoring skyrocket.

It's almost like, wait a minute, do the Cowboys also have a stable of offensive weapons too, and with a two-time Pro Bowl quarterback who knows how to get them the ball?

Why yes, my dear Watson, they do.

Now a look at each defense:

  • 49ers RZ Defense: 21/37 attempts (56.8%) — ranked 6th
  • Cowboys RZ Defense: 26/50 attempts by opponent (52%) — ranked 9th

Now, unlike the Buccaneers, the Niners defense is rather good at keeping teams out of the end zone in red zone defense, though they're still giving up five spots to the first-ranked Cowboys offense in this category. For the Dallas defense, being top-10 in a category wherein the opposing offense is ranked below the Mendoza Line in scoring works in your favor and, though it won't be easy, it's not the narrative being sold in your local bodega or corner store this week.

The Niners, though powerful and the most challenging opponent to date, aren't unbeatable.

No one is.

Bend, OK, but do not break.

Special Teams:

Things are fairly equal as it relates to returners, because both Turpin and McCloud can flip field position and, routinely, they have. Their kick return numbers are near mirror images of each other, though Turpin has delivered a 63-yard return, but neither has cribbed one … yet.

  • KaVontae Turpin: 21 KRs, 508 KR yards, L-63 yards, 24.2 YPKR
  • Ray-Ray McCloud: 26 KRs, 599 KR yards, L-39 yards, 23.0 YPKR

Their numbers on punt return aren't far apart, either.

  • KaVontae Turpin: 29 PRs, 303 PR yards, L-52 yards, 10.4 YPPR
  • Ray-Ray McCloud: 33 PRs, 356 PR yards, L-35 yards, 10.8 YPPR

It feels like this could be a game where one of these two speedsters helps determine the outcome, and both are capable. Expect plenty of kickoffs to fly out of the back of the end zone, and skied punts to try and force fair catches.

I will add this, however: the 49ers rank 25th in the league in opponent's net punt return yards allowed and 27th in gross punt return yards allowed; so if there were ever an opportunity for Turpin to have a big day, it's on Sunday in Santa Clara (the last time he had a TD return was in California, so why not?).

Summation:

Just over one year ago, the Cowboys were 12-5 and hosted a 49ers team that walked out of the locker room with a boombox, having nothing to lose and playing like it.

It was Dallas who was supposed to win that game, and they too played like it, rigid and caught off-guard by exactly how good their opponent actually was.

This time around, the 49ers have the better record and welcome a Cowboys team few expect to walk out of Levi's Stadium with a win. That means it's the 49ers who have the pressure of protecting home field and not seeing their 11-game win streak end, in the playoffs, and to an age-old rival that would love nothing more than to avenge what occurred last January — similar to how they booted Brady from the postseason (and possibly into retirement).

But, in the end, while that is glaring motivation for the Cowboys, it's not about then, and it's not about later, because later doesn't exist without right now.

It's about this moment. Nothing more, nothing less. Be great in this moment, or potentially wave goodbye to the chance to ever be.

"What is past is prologue." - Shakespeare

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