The Dallas Cowboys aren’t understating the gravity of this matchup.
The San Francisco 49ers “are, right now, probably the most likely team to go win the Super Bowl,” team owner Jerry Jones said Tuesday.
“They’re contenders, whether we beat them or not,” Cowboys pass rusher Micah Parsons added Wednesday. “A team you know you got to worry about when it comes to January and February football.”
And while a Sunday Night Football matchup in October doesn’t carry the same postseason implications as what could eventually be a third straight January matchup, the face-off of two of the NFC’s best teams offers a meaningful benchmark of where each has grown since the 49ers eliminated the Cowboys for the second straight postseason last January — and where they need to grow if either is to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this season.
The Cowboys are 3-1 thanks in large part to a frenetic defense whose 10 takeaways through four weeks trails only the Buffalo Bills.
Opposite them: No team is cleaner than the 4-0 49ers, who have lost just one fumble in four weeks. Quarterback Brock Purdy has not thrown an interception.
And yet, Parsons has a hunch on how to affect the quarterback.
“I don’t think he’s played perfectly,” Parsons said. “I think he’s played really good, but I think there’s opportunities there. People just aren’t capitaliz[ing] on them. He’s been really terrific through the last two years and he’s definitely solidified himself as one of the guys you have to watch, one of the top-15 quarterbacks.
“So we got to try our best to kind of reverse their tricks.”
Shanahan vs. Quinn a battle of surprise and disguise
“Tricks” is an apt descriptor of the chess match between Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, who calls plays on offense. Each has evolved schematically since they teamed up as Falcons head coach and offensive coordinator, respectively, in 2015 and 2016.
Versatility and disguise has defined each of their post-Atlanta tenures.
“What makes Kyle[’s scheme] special is, here’s a running back who can play like a receiver and receiver who can play like a running back,” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn told Yahoo Sports during a training camp interview. “He didn’t play that way all the time. Any good coach, offense, defense, they evolve and say, ‘All right, I got a unique guy: How can we play him and how would we use him?’
“So I think that’s what separates the really good coaches, whether it’s system or not system, to say: ‘Yeah, we have a system. But this guy is very special and we’re gonna play him in a certain way.”
Shanahan evolved from wide zone to gap scheme concepts, Quinn told reporters this week, marrying run and pass concepts in ways that leave linebackers wondering whether to pursue downhill or stay back and sniff out a run.
Quinn’s response to versatile schemes like Shanahan’s: find players who can do more than one thing. His transformation of Parsons from linebacker to edge rusher is most discussed, but Quinn has also toggled safety Jayron Kearse to linebacker, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch to edge rusher, and edge rushers DeMarcus Lawrence and Dorance Armstrong to defensive tackle.
That’s how the Cowboys will aim to match up with star offensive weapons Christian McCaffrey, who’s coming off a four-touchdown game, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. Expect Kearse to take primary responsibility for tight end George Kittle, due to Kearse’s size/speed combination.
Both coaches thrive on changing looks and plays without needing to change personnel.
“They can make you make a lot of mistakes,” Shanahan said this week. “You’ve got to get rid of it quick, sometimes [even] before you’re ready. They mix up a lot of man coverages, a lot of zone coverages and they can confuse you like that. When you’re behind the chains … they’re as good a team as any when they got you one-dimensional.
“They generate a lot of chaos, especially up front, and that’s usually what leads to them getting all their turnovers.”
Will Cowboys recipe be enough against Purdy?
The power of the Cowboys’ chaos hasn’t just been how they cause it but also when.
The Cowboys have generated four takeaways, in addition to a blocked field goal, in the first halves of games this season. They’ve scored three defensive touchdowns and a special teams touchdown in the first half through four weeks.
Quickly, with this recipe, games got out of hand. Dallas’ offense needed to maintain, rather than chase, a lead. Dallas’ defense could force an influx of passing situations that play to its pass-rush strength.
Will this work against Purdy, who leads the league in efficiency with a 115.1 passer rating?
The Cowboys lost to the Arizona Cardinals who fronted the 10th-most efficient quarterback in Joshua Dobbs and also skewered the Cowboys in the run game. Dallas’ three wins have come against the 25th, 32nd and 33rd-rated passers.
“The turnover battle’s huge for us,” Purdy said this week. “We’ve got a good defense, we’ve got a great offense, and it’s how we can eliminate the errors and be smart with the ball, even if that means punting and letting our defense do their thing. I feel like all the games that we’ve played in so far, it’s come down to turnovers.
“That’s something we pride ourselves on here.”
Dallas may be wiser to focus on forcing fumbles, which they’ve done three times, than interceptions, of which they’ve nabbed seven. Purdy surrendered his lone giveaway thus far when Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt exploded off the edge and knocked the ball loose as he sacked Purdy in Week 1.
Three other times this year, Purdy has fumbled but recovered. One came earlier in the game vs. Watt, Purdy ultimately recovering by essentially lodging the ball beneath his back and the ground.
Then, once each in Week 2 and Week 3, a snap was botched. Each time Purdy saved it.
Parsons will be raring for a chance to change that.
The Cowboys’ best chance: force a fumble rather than chase the interception, and capitalize off it early in the game.
The 49ers have earned their reputation as the superior team, from their dominant start to this season to their recent postseason track record, especially in this matchup. As of Thursday night, they were 3.5-point favorites, per BetMGM.
And yet, the past two games between these teams have come down to 6- and 7-point margins. The personnel matchup is close enough, though, that the chess game will impact the outcome.
“There’s no reason physically, no reason scheme-wise,” Jones said, “that we shouldn’t go out there and play well enough to win the ballgame.”