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Position battleground (defense): Cowboys vs. 49ers head-to-head breakdown for defensive positions

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Position battleground (defense): Cowboys vs. 49ers head-to-head breakdown for defensive positions
Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

A positional head-to-head breakdown of the Divisional round matchup between the Cowboys and 49ers on defense.

Previously we broke down the offense for this week’s upcoming game for the Dallas Cowboys. Now we dive back into the position battleground, this time looking at how the defensive positions and special teams stack up against each other.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The Cowboys defense was electric last week against the Tom Brady led offense. Most people would look at Tampa Bays’s total offensive yardage last week and think that meant the defense wasn’t really that dominant. But a lot of the production allowed was on a long drive that died on an interception in the endzone, and when the defense dropped back as the game shifted further away from Tampa Bay and time on the clock was the big issue. A lot of the early success and command of this game came from the inside defensive linemen and what a time for them to turn up.

Osa Odighizuwa, Chauncey Golston and even Carlos Watkins had fine games putting pressure on passing plays as well as maintaining against the run. The pressure these inside defenders brought up front was leading to frustration on Brady’s play and sideline demeanor. Johnathan Hankins closed the run down incredibly effectively at the one-tech position and helped keep the Buccaneers run game to just 52 yards, he even managed to get to Brady for a sack. From the edge, both Dante Fowler Jr and Dorance Armstrong had a good day applying pressure. Their pass-rush plan for this week will need to be on point against the San Francisco 49ers’ offensive line.

With this San Francisco 49ers defense, the defensive line is where the rubber meets the road. How the Cowboys’ offensive line maintains blocks to keep Dak Prescott upright will be essential against this concrete defensive line. The 49ers rank in the top 10 in defensive sacks, third in defensive takeaways and have the NFL sack leader, Nick Bosa. Add on top of all the fact that the 49ers defensive line finished the regular season allowing one of the fewest rush yards per game, with a remarkable remarkable 77 yards allowed per game. But in recent games the line has allowed 100-yard rushers, and confronting the Cowboys’ run game that finished second in rushing touchdowns will be one of the keys to the game.

Win: 49ers

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers
Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

LINEBACKER

Warner/Greenlaw vs Parsons/Vander Esch

We witnessed a Defensive Player of the Year performance from Micah Parsons last week. We called Dak’s game last week as one of his best, this was one of Parsons’ best games yet. He was undoubtedly the best player on the field against the Buccaneers and his snap count is a testament to that. Dan Quinn refused to take him off the field playing 79 out of a possible 80 plays on defense, an unbelievable workload. In return, Parsons tallied eight pressures, one sack, and three very necessary defensive stops with three recorded tackles. A pure masterclass performance.

Leighton Vander Esch had himself a day too. His presence in the run game was noticeable. Seeing how this defense operates without him, and then to see the impact with his return, verifies he merits a new contract with Dallas. Having led the team in tackles during last week’s game, while adding a near interception to his stat line, demonstrates this offseason he ought to be made a priority to re-sign with Dallas. Last year in the playoffs against San Francisco he was the one shining light on an otherwise dark day. Let’s hope he finds that inner light once again.

Both Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw finished the regular season as the team’s top tacklers. Fred Warner fell just shy as the top tackler with 99 tackles and that seems to be the sweet spot for him in total tackles each year. What makes Warner so threatening though is his dual-function capabilities. From the Mike linebacker position Warner is able to plug the run and also play coverage extremely well, allowing only a 65% completion rate on the season and even snatching an interception. For Greenlaw, he led the team in tackles with 105 and only missed eight tackles all season. He also created two forced fumbles on the year and managed to capture a pass for an interception

Win: Cowboys

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Dallas Cowboys v Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

DEFENSIVE BACKS

The good news for the Cowboys defensive backs is there is now ample game tape on Brock Purdy to watch his throwing action, but also spot how he goes awry with his ball placement, meaning this could be a matter of emphasis for the defense. For those anxious about Trevon Diggs and his tackling capacity, there are two sides to the narrative. It’s true he’s made over 50 tackles this year and in that period he has only missed five tackles. The issue is more to do with what looks like willingness at times during the game to go forward and make a tackle. His technique at tackling is textbook, he has no problems bringing his man down, but every now and then he will evade the tackle, or delay for his man to get past a little to tackle him from behind as opposed to head-on for less yardage. For those worried about Diggs versus Samuel though, don’t ignore the last time these two met where Diggs permitted only 30 yards against Samuel. And the first time these pair met Diggs closed the game right down against him.

For the other side of the field the Cowboys defense will need to be on it’s toes to help support DaRon Bland covering Brandon Aiyuk. The second wide receiver for the 49ers has over 1,000 yards this year and has an average depth of target of near eleven yards, showing he’s a skilled deep-threat that needs extra attention. Bland didn’t have a bad game last week, but he most certainly looks better as a slot corner as opposed to outside. But placing Bland inside would mean positioning Israel Mukuamu outside, but Mukuamu had a pretty promising day playing from the slot.

Tied in with the receiving conundrum is keeping George Kittle at bay, so a giant day will be required from Jayron Kearse. His injury isn’t worrying him and when questioned about his likelihood of playing this week he said “100 percent” which is tremendous news to hear. His interception in the endzone last week was a key moment in the game. It was Brady’s first redzone interception as a Buccaneer and there was no one better deserving than Kearse to snag that off him.

For the 49ers, it’s the passing game where they can be out-maneuvered if done right. Charvarius Ward doesn’t miss a tackle when he’s invited to do so in coverage, and does a pretty sound job in pass coverage as well. The area to attack in terms of corners is the opposing side against Deommodore Lenior. He allows a 96.8 rating when targeted and has missed a bunch of tackles this year. With Ward better playing the pass deep and Lenior better in closer passing routes, this is an ideal matchup for CeeDee Lamb to strike while Michael Gallup keeps clearing Ward on deep routes.

Their safeties are liable for leaking touchdowns on zone coverage, but they are excellent at coming downhill to assist in the run game and finding the ball carrier. Who triumphs in this battle on both teams will come down to the defensive backs halting momentum on third down, which both offenses are effective at converting.

Win: Cowboys

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Dallas Cowboys v Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

SPECIAL TEAMS

Brett Maher had problems making extra points to put it mildly, and post-game this ushered in a range of speculation. From issues with field conditions, mental issues, or even carrying an issue medically, it was evident something was amiss with Maher. Concern about whether he can make field goals this week or if this matter continues on the extra-point conversions has led to the team signing a kicker to the roster as insurance going forward, adding Tristan Vizcaino earlier this week. He’s been at Dallas before for a brief span but he also has been with eight different teams trying to claim a stake. But at least this way bases are covered should the worse happen.

Robbie Gould has had an unusual season. He’s missed five field goals and one extra point. But most of those misses came earlier in the year.

Bryan Anger out-punts Mitch Wishnowsky on an average per-punt basis by over four yards per attempt. Wishnowsky however has landed his punts inside the twenty more frequently than Anger and has very few of his kicks returned back on him. Anger has a longer hang time.

KaVontae Turpin and Ray-Ray McCloud II are pretty much evenly matched in returning the ball. The only noticeable distinction is Turpin has had longer return attempts and has been close to a complete breakaway on a number of occasions.

Win: Push

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