3 bold predictions for Cowboys-49ers, which is a difficult matchup for Dallas on paper

The Dallas Cowboys (4-9) greet the San Francisco 49ers (5-8) Sunday at AT&T Stadium in a game with teams whose Super Bowl hopes were quickly dashed by a series of injuries.

There weren’t two teams hit harder by the injury bug than the Cowboys and 49ers, who Spotrac said lead the NFL in the cap area assigned to players on the reserved / injured list (IR). San Francisco currently has 17 players taking up 34.9% of total cap space in IR while Dallas has 12 players taking up 32.3%.

While the 49ers’ record is only one game better than the Cowboys, they were undoubtedly the better team this year and are far more dangerous than their record suggests. The 49ers occupy 14th place in the DVOA (defense-adjusted value above average), 21st place in the offensive DVOA, 10th place in the defensive DVOA and 20th place in the DVOA of the special teams. The cowboys move almost backwards and occupy 27th place in the DVOA overall, 23rd place in the offensive DVOA, 25th place in the defensive DVOA and 10th place in the DVOA of the special teams.

The 49ers make a tough matchup for the Cowboys on paper, but as we’ve seen so many times this season, games aren’t played on paper. It’s everyone’s guess as to what will actually happen. With that said, let’s make some bold predictions for Sunday’s action.

49ers hurry more than 150 meters

The cowboys show one of their better performances against the run. Dallas limited Cincinnati to 101 rushing yards to 3.4 yards per carry, but that was more the Bengals’ lack of talent along the offensive line and running back than run defense, which magically got strong 14 weeks into the season.

Dallas doesn’t have that luxury this week. San Francisco is way more talented front and back than Cincinnati.

Left winger Trent Williams is one of the best in the NFL and an old division enemy of the Cowboys from his time in Washington. Right-wing tackle Mike McGlinchey struggled with pass protection but has been one of the league’s better tackles since his rookie year in 2018. The left guard Laken Tomlinson is very powerful and made his career in San Francisco an extreme man to effectively contribute to the running game.

In the backfield, Raheem Mostert is one of the fastest running backs in the NFL, who can turn a small fold into a long touchdown at any time. The cowboys can be lucky out here – Mostert missed Wednesday’s training with an ankle injury and his status for Sunday is in the air.

Jeff Wilson is an effective backup capable of a big day (he ran 112 yards at 6.6 yards per carry against New England in week 7), while Tevin Coleman and Jerick McKinnon are talented insurance plans that come in handy can be if they are used. Even full-back Kyle Juszczyk is a weapon (10 first losses in 13 broadcasts according to Pro Football Focus) to consider when facing the 49ers’ roaring attack.

With Deebo Samuel likely to be out, rookie receiver Brandon Aiyuk could also flow into the running game. San Francisco loves using jet sweeps and other wide receiver runs to keep the defense honest.

Additionally, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan is probably the best run game designer and play caller in the NFL. He does a fantastic job of using various formations, misdirections, moves and displacements to get defenders out of position and give his blockers up front angular advantages that result in explosive runs and great efficiency. Shanahan loves to overload linebackers with stimuli in order to make slow decisions based on the sheer volume of information they have to process in the blink of an eye.

For a team like the Cowboys, who have struggled to adjust their barrel adjustments when the picture changes before and after the snapping, this could be a recipe for disaster. That was clear against the Baltimore Ravens when the Cowboys allowed 294 rushing yards to 7.9 yards per carry. Shanahan doesn’t use a QB-centric running game like Baltimore, but he can create similar defensive loads and confusion with his game design and sequencing.

To slow a moderately healthy assault in San Francisco, the defense needs to be very talented in the top seven – see Washington, which has one of the best fronts in football and limited the 49ers to 108 rushing yards to 4 yards per carry last week. Dallas’ top seven spots are possibly one of the team’s biggest weaknesses right now, as defensive tackles and linebackers have lived in Struggle City all season.

Expect the Dallas Run Defense’s worries to straighten their ugly heads as Shanahan and the 49ers dice the cowboys for more than 150 yards on the ground – and more than 200 is certainly out of the question.

Zürlein makes more than 4 field goals

One of the areas where cowboys’ offense has deteriorated the most without Dak Prescott is in the red zone. In the five games that Prescott was healthy, Dallas scored touchdowns on 13 of 19 trips in the red zone (68.4%). Without him, the Cowboys scored touchdowns on only 8 out of 23 trips in the red zone (34.7%).

Dallas’s regression in the red zone cannot be attributed to Prescott’s absence alone, as injuries along the offensive line are likely to be a big factor as well. It is often more efficient to play the ball in short range situations, which often occur in the red zone, than to pass. But Dallas just wasn’t able to consistently create running tracks in these red zone situations, resulting in an ineffective ground attack that really cannot be relied on within the 20 yard line. Ezekiel Elliott has only scored four touchdowns in 23 runs within the 5-yard line.

And things are unlikely to get any better against San Francisco’s stingy defense in the red zone. The 49ers occupy eighth place and allow touchdowns on only 55.9% of their opponents’ runs within the 20s.

Expect cowboys kicker Greg Zuerlein to have a busy day for this reason, kicking at least four field goals while Dallas battles for touchdowns. Unlike the last time Zuerlein attempted four field goals (in Baltimore), I expect him to make every attempt within the cozy confines of the AT&T Stadium.

The defense of the cowboys secures 2 INTs

On Sunday the Cowboys finished 29th with five interceptions.

Don’t be surprised if you climb a few places in the leaderboard after the game in San Francisco.

One wonders why the 49ers would pass the ball in the first place, given the advantage their assault should have against the Cowboys. Still, there will be times when quarterback Nick Mullens will be asked to back off in an attempt to move the offense with his arm.

And if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Mullens from his extensive campaign this season, it’s that he’s not afraid to put the ball in the hands of the other team – Mullens has made one in seven of his nine appearances Interceptions thrown, three of which were presented to multiple picks.

Mullens tends to stare at his targets, allowing defenders squeezing his eyes to take plus-breaks on the ball.

So don’t be surprised if one of the linebackers or a security guard like Xavier Woods is able to do a good jump an intermediate route or two for an intercept or two.

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