49ers vs. Cowboys Preview & Prediction: 49ers defensive front is the key to victory for San Fran

The 49ers vs. Cowboys rivalry runs deep, and the prediction for the game is tight. A few understated matchups will decide the game.

The San Francisco 49ers vs. Dallas Cowboys matchup at 4:30 PM Eastern on Sunday of the Wild Card round is the premier playoff matchup for the weekend and is incredibly difficult to make a prediction for. The national media has highlighted quite a bit about this game throughout the week, but there are a few things not being talked about as much that will have a major impact on this game. With the historical rivalry in addition to the reputation of each team, this should be the most-watched contest of the weekend.

San Francisco 49ers vs. Dallas Cowboys preview

There’s an off chance the Cowboys walk away with a comfortable win in this game. They have the offensive potential and the defensive prowess to dominate teams lacking high-powered quarterback play. Although Jimmy Garoppolo probably won’t have a massive impact on the game, the potential is always there for him to give the ball away. If that happens, it’ll be incredibly difficult to beat the Cowboys. But there are important details that need addressing in this preview.

San Francisco’s defensive front isn’t just Nick Bosa

If you’re team “pass rush > coverage,” 2021 might have been the defining argument. The Steelers, Raiders, and 49ers defenses were carried by their pass rush. But when people think of the 49ers, the conversation tends to begin with second-team All-Pro Nick Bosa and end with Arik Armstead.

That’s a mistake.

In base, San Francisco consistently causes problems with four pass rushers. In obvious passing downs, they do it with ease. Samson Ebukam, D.J. Jones, Armstead, and Bosa are a formidable unit.

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Jones won’t consistently be a problem as a pass rusher, but he dominates the point of attack with his 320-pound base. His power, hand technique, and athleticism allow him to make plays at and behind the line of scrimmage as well as outside of the tackle box.

But the entire front seven plays well against both the pass and run. Their edge rushers play wide but aggressively squeeze tackles in the ground game, allowing their athletic linebackers to spill outside unimpeded.

But they aren’t defined by their top four, either. Kentavius Street is one of the most athletic interior defenders in the league, albeit raw. Arden Key plays on obvious passing downs, and they move him up and down the line. In the past four games, he’s generated 17 pressures, 3 sacks, and 7 QB hits.

The 49ers don’t disguise coverages often

Aside from playing 3 buzz and weak from a two-high shell, the 49ers do a lot of just lining up and running what it looks like they’re about to run. Occasionally, they’ll act as if they’re bringing pressure and drop out of it, but it’s not often. They run what they run, and they’re good at it.

Unfortunately for the 49ers, Dak Prescott might be the most intelligent and decisive quarterback in the league, both pre and post-snap. Moreover, the 49ers’ zone coverages are of the spot-drop variety most of the time, which means space is afforded to receivers on most occasions.

That’s not a good recipe against Prescott and his band of receiving weapons. It’s especially toxic for San Francisco’s secondary because Prescott and OC Kellen Moore know exactly how to attack Cover 2 and Cover 3. It’s in Prescott’s strengths.

There are few intermediate passers more decisive and accurate than Prescott. I expect to see Dig routes from Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb opening up against cornerbacks with outside and overtop Cover 3 leverage. I expect Sail and Flood concepts when the Cowboys go to trips and Smash concepts in 2×2 sets to put the cornerback in conflict.

Pressure is the great equalizer

If the 49ers struggle to get pressure vs. the Cowboys, they will lose. Their spot-drop concepts work because of the pressure they get with four. If they struggle to affect Prescott quickly, he will pick them apart like I do a turkey leg at the state fair.

49ers vs. Cowboys prediction

Spread: Cowboys -3 (Odds Courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook)
Moneyline: Cowboys -165, 49ers +145
Total: 50.5

Trench play will determine how the game turns out. The 49ers’ offensive line is outstanding, and if Trent Williams is anywhere close to 100%, they’re downright dominant. If the Cowboys can pass protect long enough for Prescott, they’ll move the ball at will.

The importance of tackling cannot be overstated against San Francisco. Nobody is more dangerous with the ball than Deebo Samuel. George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk are both lethal after the catch as well. If Garoppolo avoids mistakes over the middle, the 49ers have a fair shot at beating a more talented Cowboys squad.

But nobody took the ball away better than Dallas did in 2021, and that didn’t happen by mistake. Garoppolo will lose a linebacker or a pass high and throw that back-breaking interception that will make the transition to Trey Lance taste like ice cream cake.

49ers vs. Cowboys Prediction: Cowboys 30, 49ers 24

Dalton Miller is the Lead NFL Analyst at Pro Football Network. You can read more of his work here and follow him @daltonbmiller on Twitter and Twitch.