Cowboys vs. 49ers: What’s the Game Plan for San Francisco

Today we preview the 49ers versus the Cowboys in figures to be another classic match-up between these old school rivals.

Tomorrow the 49ers will face the Dallas Cowboys in Fox’s Game of the Week at 1:25pm PST/4:25pm EST. The Cowboys are currently 2-1 and coming off of a Sunday night victory against the Bears. The 49ers were beaten in all phases of the game last weekend in Seattle.

If the 49ers are to win this game, they need to clean-up several aspects of their performance last week. Briefly, here are the match-ups the 49ers will face from Pro Football Focus’ player grades.

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1. THIRD DOWN DEFENSE

Number one on that list is getting off the field on third down. Per Pro Football Reference play finder, the Seahawks converted four of five third downs when the situation was 10 yards to gain or more with pass plays of 59, 40, 18 and 12 yards.

On at least three of those conversions, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson seemingly had all day to throw the ball due to a lack of a 49ers pass rush.

First Play: 8:10 first quarter, 3rd and 15 from the Seattle 45

Seattle spreads out the 49ers defense with a five wide and an empty backfield. Tight end Jimmy Graham is lined up as the number three receiver to the right.

The 49ers rush four and drop seven into coverage. Safety Eric Reid lines up 20+ yards deep and back pedals at the snap. Wilson completes the pass to Graham for an 18 yard gain.

Second Play: 8:48 second quarter, 3rd and 14 from the Seattle 23

Seattle again motions the running back out of the back field and moves to an empty set with five wide, three in a bunch formation to Wilson’s left. The 49ers counter with a three-man front and receiver cushions of at least 10-15 yards.

Four pass rushers did not work last time, so the 49ers send three this time, and the result is the same. Wilson has all day to throw and hits wide receiver Doug Baldwin for a 59 yard gain after he runs right by cornerback Tremaine Brock.

Third Play: 2:40 second quarter, 3rd and 17 from the Seattle 36

Seattle lines up with a 3×1 bunch set with the bunch to the right of Wilson. Linebacker Ahmad Brooks jumps offsides and Seattle takes advantage of the free play by sending all receivers on go-routes.

Once again, the 49ers, despite jumping offisde and sending six rushers this time (two on delayed blitz), still manage to get zero pressure on Wilson. Wilson throws a jump ball up to Graham and completes the pass for 40 yards.

2. RUN DEFENSE

Seattle gashed the 49ers for a ton of yards on several long running plays. Is the lack of an effective run defense a question of talent or of coaching? My inclination is to guess coaching and three plays from last weekend illustrate this idea.

First Play: 14:24 first quarter, 1st and 10 from the 49ers 41

Seattle hit San Francisco with their outside zone running game and zone read on several plays. For more on the outside zone run, see here. The strength of the Seattle formation is set to the right but here they run outside zone to the weakside.

Nose tackle Mike Purcell is shaded just to the left of side of the center, and presumably responsible for the weak-side A-gap. At the snap, you can see he picks the wrong run fit, attacks the strong-side gap, and leaves the linebackers exposed to the blockers.

Purcell should have pinched that weak-side A-gap and this would’ve spilled the running back to Bowman who could’ve made the play. Instead, Christine Michael goes untouched for a 41-yard touchdown.

Second Play: 11:58 first quarter, 2nd and 8 from the Seattle 40

The failure of this play lies solely with the defensive coordinator. Jim O’Neil did not have his team adequately prepared to face a similar zone running scheme offense to their own, one they see every day in practice. Wilson has limited mobility due to an ankle injury in week one and should’ve been viewed as a non-factor in the zone read.

Seattle was not going to risk a “keep” read for the quarterback on this particular play at any point until he’s 100%. Instead, the 49ers’ game plan called for taking the quarterback run away from Wilson and the results were disastrous.

A key to defending the zone read is the linebacker “scrape-exchange” where a linebacker fills the void by replacing the crashing defensive end. Except the 49ers did not crash their ends and the linebackers did not scrape to fill their gaps. They allowed the offensive line to get up on their blocks. Fortunately for the 49ers, this 18 yard gain was negated by holding penalty.

Third Play: 4:11, 3rd and 1 from the 49ers 4

Same as the play above, Seattle takes advantage of a 49ers defense seemingly content to give up the lane to the running back.

No scrape exchange and bad pre-snap alignment by O’Neil in having Buckner playing head-up on the left tackle in the 4-technique position. Buckner is best as a three or five-technique defensive lineman who plays a single gap. However, from the 4-tech position (2-gap) he picks the wrong gap and gets pancaked by the double team block.

Against Dallas, who runs a similar zone running scheme with Ezekiel Elliot, the 49ers will have to clean up their assignments while facing a much better offensive line. Dallas, in addition to running zone, will also run power and counter similar to Chip Kelly’s offense.

The 49ers will have certainly have their hands full with this rushing attack.

3. DAK PRESCOTT AND THE PASSING GAME

The defense will need to come up with a way to slow down the Cowboys passing attack. The Cowboys will already be without Dez Bryant, but it did not matter much against the Bears, whom the Cowboys picked on with tight end Jason Witten and wide receiver Cole Beasley.

Also note how frighteningly accurate and poised quarterback Dak Prescott appears to be. Although the gifs don’t really show it, Prescott also does a great job with his pre-snap reads in directing traffic, identifying key defensive players, and audibling to the correct plays.

4. GET CARLOS HYDE AND THE RUNNING GAME GOING EARLY

The 49ers running game has been stagnant since week one despite Carlos Hyde going for two touchdowns in garbage time last weekend. The 49ers are running 75% of their running plays to the left and center, and much the same as in years past, that appears to the 49ers strength.

Against the Cowboys defensive front, the 49ers should have no trouble running their bread and butter inside and outside zone running plays.

The weak link appears to be the right side of the offensive line, though guard Andrew Tiller has had a decent showing. That leaves Trent Brown (#77 in the gifs below), who I predicted before the season wouldn’t fare as well due to his size and athleticism.

He was drafted in the Jim Harbaugh era primarily to be a gap scheme (power, counter) run blocker. Per Pro Football Focus players grades, he’s currently graded as the 72nd worst offensive tackle in run blocking. It’s not hard to see why.

For the 49ers to have success, they will have to mix up their run directions despite the weakness on the right side.

5. QUARTERBACK AND RECEIVERS

Once again, Blaine Gabbert gave us much to be disappointed with. He was wildly inaccurate and missed seeing several wide open receivers, or just didn’t really let plays develop. I’ll give the reader one guess where Gabbert went with this pass.

If you guessed Blake Bell, you’d be wrong. Gabbert waited for the crossing route to develop, came off his first read, hitched, looked at Bell, and decided to fit the ball into Torrey Smith.

Per Pro Football Focus’ Jeff Deeney, Gabbert faced little pressure and took no sacks. Yet he still cannot let plays develop and has a release time of around 2.3 seconds from snap to throw.

Without knowing the specific play call, it’s tough to say where Gabbert is supposed to go with the ball here, but we have to assume running back Shaun Draughn is at the end of the quarterback’s progression here because he did not appear to be ready for this pass. Gabbert’s eyes immediately shifted to the running back after seeing the passing routes had not developed.

Lastly, the 49ers are currently 4th in the NFL in dropped passes with 6 and 6.3% drop rate. The 49ers need to catch and secure the ball but this appears to be consistent theme with Chip Kelly-coached teams.

The 49ers have to clean up several of these issues if they’re going to any chance at beating the Cowboys. Otherwise, they’re staring 1-3 in the face.

All images courtesy of NFL.com.

All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless otherwise indicated.

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