Skip to main content

Science Lab

Presented by

Science Lab: How to Perform Exorcism of the 49ers


FRISCO, TX — If you thought Linda Blair was possessed, you haven't seen the Dallas Cowboys this week as they prepare to take on the San Francisco 49ers, a team that has knocked them out of the playoffs in consecutive seasons.

If the Cowboys want to prove they're ready to take the next step toward this year's Super Bowl, they must first exorcize the Demon in The Bay, and in primetime for all to see.

Make no mistake, the 49ers are not only formidable, but they are the most formidable opponent the Cowboys have faced so far. The promising news is that's also true in the inverse, because Kyle Shanahan's bunch hasn't faced an opponent like the one flying in from Dallas this weekend.

As such, this will all come down to execution by the Cowboys.

There's little room for error at Levi's Stadium this weekend, though there are some unexpressed weaknesses that exist within the 49ers that no one is shining a light on through four weeks and, as I dug deeply into the trends of both teams, they leapt off of the flim and page right at me.

Walk with me. Talk with me.

And toss me that holy water from over there on the counter.

[note: all stats courtesy of Next Gen Stats and Pro Football Reference]

Hail Mary

It's a phrase made popular in football by Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Stabauch after he said he tossed up a prayer that was answered when legendary receiver Drew Pearson came down with the game-winning catch for the Cowboys against the Minnesota Vikings in 1975.

Six years later, Joe Montana had a prayer of his own answered when he found Dwight Clark streaking behind Cowboys defenders at Candlestick Park to take the victory in the NFC Championship Game that season.

I really just used that segue to remind you that not only is this rivalry age-old, but just how badly you should want the Cowboys to defeat the 49ers, as if you needed more reasons.

Dak Prescott and the new-look "Texas Coast" offense will have a chance at having a special day of their own on Sunday, believe it or not, one that might serve as a prelude to a possible rematch in this year's postseason (dare I say in the … NFC Championship?).

The name of the game will be to get the ball out quickly to keep one of the best defensive fronts in all of football playing honest and without their ears pinned back.

Prescott has been masterful at getting the ball out quickly.

How does he stack up against the entire field of starting NFL quarterbacks, on average? The two-time Pro Bowler is releasing the ball with a lightning-fast quickness and efficiency, to boot.

  • 1st: Tua Tagovailoa - 2.37 seconds
  • t-2nd: Joe Burrow - 2.44 seconds
  • t-2nd: Trevor Lawrence - 2.44 seconds
  • 3rd: Dak Prescott - 2.47 seconds

If you're now wondering where Purdy lands on this list, we'll get to that in the next section, so keep walking with me here and I'll get you where you want to go.

Keeping to the Cowboys' offense, it's as stacked with weaponry as its San Francisco counterparts, but the 49ers' defense can't lay the same claim — at least not in their defensive secondary.

Injury news: Dre Greenlaw is battling an ankle injury that's cost him at least one practice already this week (insert eyeballs emoji here).

Let there be no doubt about the front seven, Greenlaw's injury nothwisthanding, from Nick Bosa to Fred Warner and a trove of talent in-between, but the secondary isn't fearsome.

Capable, yes, not fearsome. Sticky at times, yes, but not fearsome.

Oh, and there's a hole in it the size of a crater on the dark side of the moon, where the alie-... hey, focus. The crater's name is Deommodore Lenoir, former fifth-round pick out of Oregon.

In dissecting hours of film on the 49ers' secondary and then cross referencing my findings and notes with statistical trends, Lenoir is a glaring liability that can and should be the focal point of the Cowboys' passing attack and, as such, I believe this is an opportunity for Brandin Cooks, specifically, to have an explosive outing; and where better than in the backyard of his hometown of Stockton?

If he's lined up against Lenoir, as I expect he will be often with Charvarius Ward having his hands full with CeeDee Lamb (and if Lenoir is matched up against Lamb from time to time, it's the same mismatch), so there will be plenty of opportunities for Cooks (and/or Lamb) to make plays both in space with the ball in his hands and on some vertical routes (and maybe intermediate slants that drag Lenoir across the field).


One of the se7en deadly sins is envy, and the Cowboys have no reason to envy what Brock Purdy and the 49ers offense is doing, because Dallas can do it as well, and maybe better.

But that means it's time to open up the playbook, and completely, and Lenoir provides a great chance at landing rewards for doing so.

Lenoir's trends are as staggering as they are unpleasant for the 49ers, which is why they ultimately signed former Cowboys cornerback Anthony Brown, releasing him but immediately signing him again. And while Brown is a capable cornerback, the Cowboys know thee well — tendencies and all.

As for Lenoir, however, take a gander below.

First, target rates per defensive back (from most to least):

  • Deommodore Lenoir - 20.7%
  • Charvarius Ward - 18.0%
  • Isaiah Oliver (nickel) - 17.7%
  • Talanoa Hufanga (safety) - 4.0%
  • Tashaun Gipson (safety) - 3.9%

Second, coverage success rate per DB (from best to worst):

  • Tashaun Gipson (safety) - 83.3% CSR
  • Talanoa Hufanga (safety) - 66.7% CSR
  • Isaiah Oliver (nickel) - 65.0% CSR
  • Charvarius Ward - 51.9% CSR
  • Deommodore Lenoir - 45.2% CSR

Finally, hawk rate per defensive back (from best to worst):

  • Talanoa Hufanga (safety) - 33.3% HR
  • Charvarius Ward - 14.8% HR
  • Isaiah Oliver (nickel) - 5.0% HR
  • Deommodore Lenoir - 3.2% HR
  • Tashaun Gipson (safety) - 0.0% HR

[minimum 5 targets]

As you can readily see, and not to pick on the guy but science doesn't care about anyone's feelings, as I've said time and again, Lenoir is the outlier here in every single category.

He's successful in coverage less than half of the time, registers a zero percent hawk rate (defined as the percentage of targets where the nearest defender made a play on the football (pass defensed or INT)) and, surprise surprise, it's the reason he is far-and-away the most targeted defender in the entire secondary.

More than one out of every five passes by the 49ers opposition is in his direction.

Don't overthink this, Cowboys. You have Lamb on a heater, Gallup starting to break out again, Cooks at the ready and Jalen Tolbert hiding in the bushes with ninja stars and nunchucks.

Translation: You have more WR weapons than they can hope to match up against, and that's why they have no choice but to try and create havoc in the backfield, or things get ugly.

I'm talking Wanda from "In Living Color", folks.

Injury news: Ward is nursing a heel injury that held him out of practice entirely on Wednesday so even if he plays, it appears he'll be on a bad wheel. That could be significant, and it would create another soft spot in coverage for Prescott and McCarthy to exploit.

And for a 49ers team that has only three interceptions grabbed by cornerbacks (one per starter and, by comparison, DaRon Bland has three by himself), there's opportunity for both air yards and for YAC (yards after the catch) to be had in Santa Clara. Shanahan is so unsure of his secondary that they'll begin granting a lot of space to allow underneath plays with the belief they can simply delete YAC.

From Lamb to Gallup to Cooks to Turpin to Tolbert, the elusiveness can make them regret that decision and when they start to play forward, take your shot deep.

It's time to finally show everybody what's in the box, Dallas.

Get the ball out quickly to the playmakers to help mitigate time needed to protect upfront, which forces a more honest defense that then allows for the occasional 5- or 7-step drop.

If there's any of the se7en deadly sins you should unleash now, it's offensive wrath, because your defense is already having to answer for theirs in weekly confessionals.

The Rosary

Let's now walk to the other side of the football and see what the aforementioned Dallas defense is up against, which is a much more daunting task when considering players like Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle. Like the Cowboys, the 49ers are carrying a full clip and, similar to what the 49ers need to do to be successful defensively, it's paramount that the Cowboys get pressure on Purdy early and often.

Considering Micah Parsons (27.4%) and DeMarcus Lawrence (20.5%) are both in the top-10 in the league in quarterback pressures, they'll get their chance.

But, unlike the 49ers, the Cowboys have arguably the best secondary in all of football, even without First-Team All-Pro Trevon Diggs, which tells you how historically special they were with him on the field.

Without him, they're still dominant, and that's saying the least.

First, target rates per defensive back (from most to least):

  • Stephon Gilmore - 20.8%
  • Donovan Wilson - 20.0%
  • Jourdan Lewis - 19.0%
  • DaRon Bland - 18.2%
  • Trevon Diggs - 17.4%

Second, coverage success rate per DB (from best to worst):

  • Trevon Diggs - 75%
  • Jourdan Lewis - 75%
  • DaRon Bland - 62.5%
  • Stephon Gilmore - 60%
  • Malik Hooker - 50%

Finally, hawk rate per defensive back (from best to worst):

  • Trevon Diggs - 37.5%
  • Malik Hooker - 33.3%
  • Jayron Kearse - 27.3%
  • DaRon Bland - 25%
  • Stephon Gilmore - 20%

[minimum 5 targets]

Teams are flat-out unable to isolate any one DB in the Cowboys' secondary, as the nearly-even target rate readily shows, and each player is both sticky in coverage and a ball hawk.

Scary hours.

As you well know, the Cowboys are animalistic when it comes to takeaways for a third consecutive season and they're also allowing only 10.3 points per game through four contests, an insane number that demonstrates just how much of a bully they've become, even more so than the 49ers — who allow nearly five more points per game as a team.

This is what Purdy is up against, but it still starts with Micah Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence and a pass rush that includes interior pressure from Osa Odighizuwa and Neville Gallimore, amongst others (many others).

And while Purdy has yet to throw an interception, he's fumbled four times when hit in the pocket or when attempting to escape it, averaging one fumble per game, but none of their other opponents capitalized on those mistakes — only one of those four fumbles having been lost.

The first four opponents of the 49ers average less than one takeaway per game. The Cowboys, contrarily, average a mind-bending 2.5 takeaways per game.

That's literally a 400% difference in production over what the 49ers have faced versus what they're about to face when the Cowboys walk onto the field at Levi's Stadium.

When Purdy puts the church's money on the ground, as he's shown a tendency in doing, Parsons and Co. need to pick up the tithes and go grab some wafers.

He has only scrambled twice this season, so that's not something to scheme for, but it's something to remain aware of, seeing as he's averaged 10.5 yards on those two scoots.

It's impossible to keep the ball out of Shanahan's playmakers' hands forever, admittedly, and that's when tackling becomes the thing that will make or break this game for Dallas.

Look at the average yards after catch and/or contact (most to least in San Francisco):

  • Deebo Samuel - 8.3 YAC
  • Christian McCaffrey - 7.1 YAC
  • George Kittle - 5.8 YAC
  • Brandon Aiyuk - 2.6 YAC
  • Kyle Juszczyk: 0 YAC

Samuel and McCaffrey are devastating in this category, so it's a good thing the Cowboys have improved markedly in this category for three of their four games, but any whiffs against the 49ers will turn into chunk yardage, which turns into heightened time of possession and/or points, which then turns into a one-dimension offensive attack by Dallas and an exhausted defense.

Sound familiar? It should. It's what mostly happened in January.

Injury news: Elijah Mitchell, the backup running back who produced nearly 1,100 scrimmage yards and six touchdowns in 2021, pre-McCaffrey, is hobbled a bit with a knee injury.

The obvious standouts in the opposite direction of the YAC conversation are Aiyuk and Juszczyk, the latter being virtually no threat of making progress after he's met and the former is deceiving, because he averages 16 yards of air time on his completions from Purdy — being the deep threat who won't get a ton of yardage after the fact because he gets it before.

Keep an eye on him more so down the deep middle and on the right of the hashes, though, because Purdy's connection to him falls off of a cliff on the deep left of the field.

On passes of 20 or more yards down to the left of the hashes, Purdy has completed just one of his four attempts this season for a passer rating of just 56.25. His spray chart is otherwise impressive, but that portion of the field has not been kind to him.

Seems like an opportunity for an interception if he tests it against Bland, of all people.

You can also play Purdy for the straight pass on most occasions, because he only uses play action on 20.2 percent (only one out of every five attempts) of the time, while Prescott is much higher at 32.4 percent.

For Shanahan, it's all about creating space for passes, not about threatening to run, and he'll not want to lean toward traditional runs against the Cowboys, anyway, because quiet as it's kept, they house five defensive linemen who are top-20 in stuffing the run.

  • 2nd - Dorance Armstrong - 17.2%
  • 6th - Neville Gallimore - 11.5%
  • t-14th - DeMarcus Lawrence - 9.4%
  • t-14th - Micah Parsons - 9.4%
  • 19th - Osa Odighizuwa - 8.9%
  • Honorable mention: 23rd - Chauncey Golston - 8%

[minimum 25 run snaps]

What happened against the Cardinals was an aberration because, believe it or not, this Cowboys run defense is not only upgraded, but it's one of the best in the league in 2023 — needing only to remain consistent. If Shanahan chooses to try and attack the ground in a more traditional fashion, more often than not, he'll likely wish he stuck to trying to attack it in space and not in a phone booth.

Myths < Reality

Now let's really have some fun before I close out this exorcism.

Having now looked at how Prescott should and can attack the 49ers defense along with what the Cowboys' defense should focus on when lining up against Purdy, I wanted to see if all of the hype surrounding San Francisco's quarterback is all true, or only mostly.

It's only mostly, though that's all the 49ers need him to be when looking at who they've surrounded him with on both sides of the ball.

Time to throw:

  • Dak Prescott: 2.49 seconds
  • Brock Purdy: 2.56 seconds

Passing yards:

  • Dak Prescott: 908 yards
  • Brock Purdy: 1,019 yards


  • Dak Prescott: 4 TDs
  • Brock Purdy: 5 TDs


  • Dak Prescott: 1 INT
  • Brock Purdy: 0 INTs

Times sacked:

  • Dak Prescott: 6 times
  • Brock Purdy: 7 times

QB Pressure:

  • Dak Prescott: 25.4%
  • Brock Purdy: 33.3%


  • Dak Prescott: 0 fumbles
  • Brock Purdy: 4 fumbles (1 lost)

These two quarterbacks are, currently, so much alike they remind me of the famed SpiderMan meme. You know the one. Yes, that one.

The exception being Prescott doesn't fumble.

And spare me the whole "but isn't Purdy labeled Mr. Irrelevant"? First, yes, but so was Tom Brady and that's not to say Purdy is Brady, but his start is equally as abnormal and, secondly, don't talk to me as if Prescott is a first-round pick, knowing he's a fourth-round pick the Cowboys used a compensatory pick to acquire.

Both players were middle to late round picks who started at the bottom of the depth chart and were thrust into the driver's seat after the two QBs above them were injured, and they thrived.

In that regard, to all whom it applies to: tell your brain to work.


Back to our regularly scheduled programming.

The Achilles heel for Dallas against San Francisco, ultimately, will be what they do or don't do in the red zone, already leading the league in number of plays per drive and effortlessly moving the ball between the 20-yard markers.

But, as I've said time and again, it boils down to execution issues in the red zone, and they're all readily fixable (e.g., Luke Schoonmaker drop, high pass to Jake Ferguson in the back of the end zone, QB and RB running into each other on the handoff, etc.). Nearly perfect football will be needed this weekend,

Red zone scoring percentage (TDs only):

  • 49ers: 67% (7th in NFL)
  • Cowboys: 37% (30th in NFL)

What's promising is that the efficiency, oddly enough, goes up for the Cowboys when they leave the comfortable confines of AT&T Stadium, where they've won 10 straight. Their red zone [TD] scoring percentage jumps to 44 percent on the road, which still leaves plenty to be desired, but it's a hefty jump after they hop on a flight out of town.

Go figure, right?

Of course, the 49ers' red zone efficiency goes up when at home — to 70 percent — and so it's more than a wash, it's an avalanche of an advantage for San Francisco in that category.

That's until you look at how poor the 49ers are in red zone defense as compared to the Cowboys.

Red zone scoring allowed (TDs only):

  • 49ers: 66% (23rd in NFL)
  • Cowboys: 33% (4th in NFL)

Oh boy, now that demon is really starting to show us its weaknesses, and the only thing left to do now is to walk in belief and expel the evil that has haunted the Cowboys for the past two seasons, and will continue to until they do something about it.

Holy Water

Is this battle winnable by the Cowboys? It absolutely is.

Will it be easy? Not on your life.

The fact remains the 49ers are the team to beat and, until further notice (Sunday?) this Cowboys team has to prove that they are, but they're definitely speeding down the right track; and even before the offense is at full throttle.

Logic, and numbers, dictate the latter is set to detonate very soon though, and there's no better time than in sunny California. It would hand the 49ers their first defeat of the regular season, and Purdy's first in the regular season since taking the helm as starting quarterback in San Francisco, putting both teams at 4-1 to begin the second quarter of the season.

For all of the rightful praise being heaped upon the team from The Bay, there are also things that can readily be exploited by the team from North Texas.

The fact this game is on a Sunday is apropos to the potential exorcism, it seems.

Amen and pass the collection plate.

Related Content