Niners vs. Cowboys: Simple game plan will be tough to execute

San Francisco needs to run the ball, pressure the quarterback and protect the football

To beat the Cowboys Sunday, the Niners’ formula for success will be fairly simple. Run the ball. Pressure the passer. Protect the football.

Executing that plan will be anything but simple.

San Francisco will be playing in hostile territory, taking on a very talented Dallas team that dominated its division this season behind the stellar play of quarterback Dak Prescott. While the 49ers enjoyed a sea of support on the road against the Rams this past Sunday, that scenario will not unfold at Arlington’s AT&T Stadium.

This is Cowboy country, through and blue.

So, do the Niners have a chance? Sure. This mercurial team has looked like world beaters at times this season. They’ve also looked mediocre. So, it depends on which team shows up. But, if momentum is any indicator, San Francisco comes in riding a wave of confidence, bolstered by a generally healthy roster.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan, however, knows he’s up against a juggernaut. The Cowboys run a high-flying potent office, spearheaded by MVP candidate Prescott. Their defense features a stout front that will be tough to run on.

“You can see why they’re in this position,” said Shanahan. “Just offensively, defensively, special teams, their numbers are off the charts… .”

“They’ve got very good talent. They’ve got very good schemes. Watching their defense, it looks so much to me like a (Cowboys defensive coordinator) Dan Quinn defense. He’s changed a lot, schematically and coverages and everything. The way those 11 guys play and attack the ball and go for the ball, he’s got them going. And it’s not a coincidence that they’re leading the league in getting turnovers.”

That’s where protecting the football comes in. Generally speaking, when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo can avoid interceptions, the Niners are hard to beat. When he gets generous with the football, it’s the other way around. Succeeding on that front will depend a lot on the Niners’ offensive line, which has improved measurably in the latter part of the season.

Establishing a run game will also keep the Dallas defensive backs honest, opening up lanes for San Francisco’s very talented receiving corps. Keep in mind, Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs led the NFL with 11 interceptions this year. That’s a big number, unseen in the NFL since 1981.

“He’s talented, man. He’s good in that back end,” said Garoppolo. “Trevon really just tracks the ball really well. I mean, you could tell that he used to play receiver. But, their whole defense, they’re pretty skilled across the board, got some big time players and it’ll be a good challenge for us.”

On offense, the Cowboys pose any number of problems, not least of which is running back Ezekiel Elliott. He’s been a star since bursting onto the NFL scene six years ago. This season, Elliott amassed 1,289 yards from scrimmage, gaining 1,002 on the ground and adding 287 via pass. In doing so, he became only the second player in NFL history to gain 1,250 yards or more, along with eight touchdowns, in each of his first six seasons. The other guy? Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson. Heady company for Elliott. A big headache for the Niners.

Prescott played on another level this season, passing for 4,499 yards and 37 touchdowns, the latter of which was a franchise record. He had the third-best quarterback rating in the NFL (104.2) and excels in home games. His long-time favorite target has been Amari Cooper, another star talent who hauled in 68 passes for 865 yards this season. The Niners also have to worry about CeeDee Lamb (team-leading 79 receptions for 1,102 yards) and tight end Dalton Schultz (78 catches for 808 yards.)

“Their offense, starting with their quarterback, he’s a great player,” said Shanahan. “(Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator) Kellen (Moore) does a real good job schematically, especially with the receivers that they have and the two running backs they have and the O-Line they have. … Very talented team and it’s very obvious why they’re in this position.”

It’s also pretty obvious why the Niners will be lining up on the other side of the ball. They come into the NFC wild card game having won four of five, including the absolutely wild season closer in Los Angeles. Sometimes, a team gets hot and can ride that far.

Sometimes a team just has a lot of talent.

Five Niners were selected for the 2022 Pro Bowl (defensive lineman Nick Bosa, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, tight end George Kittle, wide receiver Deebo Samuel and offensive tackle Trent Williams). The team finished the season ranked second in total defense, third in total offense.

A number of young players emerged as legitimate contributors during that late stretch, including receiver Jauan Jennings who had a career game with two touchdowns in Los Angeles, and cornerback Ambry Thomas, who sealed the Rams game with an interception. Bosa and fellow defensive lineman Arik Armstead are playing their best football of the season right now, terrorizing quarterbacks on the regular.

But, in the end, the story line of the year has always circled around Garoppolo. His job was in jeopardy, thanks to top pick Trey Lance coming onboard. His talent was questioned, despite turning in a very respectable season in terms of statistics and victories. And his toughness was challenged, coping with a late-season thumb injury that he overcame against the Rams.

Now, Jimmy G heads to Dallas in what could be his last game as a San Francisco 49er. Asked if he felt emotional, he gave it to us straight.

“It’s always in the back of your mind. It has been in mine, you know, really this whole season,” said Garoppolo. “I knew what type of season it was, knew everything that was going on behind the scenes and whatnot. So it was a little different. But, at the same time, … you don’t want to get too emotional in those moments. And you’ve just got to go play football when it comes down to it. But the human side definitely comes into play.”

“This team that we have, we know we have a chance to do something special. You don’t get that opportunity every year. I’ve been on a number of teams that went to the Super Bowl, and I’m not saying anything like that, but just there’s a feeling and you want to make them count as long as you have them I guess.”

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