Can/Should the Dallas Cowboys run the ball against the 49ers?

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

Picking against the Dallas Cowboys is all the rage these days. It’s seems as though you’re not a deep-thinking national pundit unless you pile on the anti-Dallas bandwagon this postseason. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with picking a lower seeded team over a higher seeded team, the trendiness and disrespect of this particular hot take stinks of disingenuity.

As Sport DFW’s Dink Kearny pointed out earlier in the week, the San Francisco 49ers had to sneak into the playoffs in the final moments of their final game. The Dallas Cowboys have basically had control of their playoff spot since October (seriously, Dallas had the best odds of making the postseason in the entire NFL as early as October).

With this universal anti-Cowboys sentiment came the equally misinformed tips. Things like: “If the Cowboys want to win they need to do this…” and “Dallas must do this in order to have a chance.”

Truckloads of bad advice has been raining down from the heavens. Sometimes from trusted sources and other times from known national trolls (I think you know who I’m referring to). While some advice has been good, other advice has been downright ridiculous.

One strategy of attack that’s been gaining traction is regarding the Dallas Cowboys running game.

What kind of role should the Dallas Cowboys running game play in their playoff matchup against the 49ers?

San Francisco, a team built around the running game, has bucked recent trends. With heavy investments in their offensive and defensive line, the 49ers do most of their best work in the trenches.

Their passing game plays a supporting role on offense and their secondary is a neighborhood built on the wrong side of the tracks in the city they call “Defense.” San Fran likes to win up front. They run the ball with ease and they dare you to run the ball against them.

The Dallas Cowboys offensive strategy

So how should the Dallas Cowboys approach this defense? Some analysts look at the 49ers defensive alignment and say the Dallas Cowboys need to run on them. They say things like: “If Dallas can move the ball on the ground…” and “If Dallas establishes the run…”

instead of preaching about what the Cowboys should do, I’m going to lay the numbers out and let you decide based on facts from this season.

Statements like these are music to some peoples’ ears but nails on the chalkboard to others. The role of the running game has been a sensitive matter in Cowboys Nation for years. One that’s populated with passionate fans on both sides of the aisle. I’m proud to say I am one of those passionately outspoken members of Cowboys Nation.

I have opinions on the matter and more importantly, I have the facts and the numbers (the good numbers not the volume stats). I can’t predict what’s going to happen, but I can accurately report what has happened.

So instead of preaching about what the Dallas Cowboys should do, I’m going to lay the numbers out and let you decide based on facts from this season. Sound fair?

What are Dallas’ and San Francisco’s strengths and weaknesses?

The San Francisco 49ers defensive line is a highly talented bunch. They may not pack the box with players, but they dominate regardless. Think quality > quantity here. At season’s end the 49ers finished second in the NFL in run defense. They finished just 0.006 expected points away from being the best run-stopping defense in the league.

Similarly, the success rate of running the ball against them was second-best in the NFL. Only 34.2% of runs against them are successful. That’s “wow” territory, my friends.

the 49ers finished second in the NFL in run defense while the Dallas running game finished 14th

Now let’s see how the Dallas Cowboys stack up: The Cowboys running game is 14th in the NFL with a -0.062 expected points added per play. They rank even worse in success rate, posting a 41.1 SR which ranks 17th in the NFL.

The San Fran pass-defense is another story. They rank 23rd in the NFL in expected points against per play (+.100). The success rate per drop-back against is more beatable as well, with them finishing with a 46.2% SR against (which ranks 14th in the NFL).

The Dallas offense ranks sixth in the NFL in EPA on passing plays, posting .168 added per drop-back. The success rate through the air is strong as well, with Dak and company posting a success rate of over 50% (10th in the NFL).

So when we break down the strengths and weaknesses of both clubs the stars seem to align perfectly. San Francisco’s strength is run defense. Dallas’ weakness is the running game. San Francisco’s weakness is pass defense. Dallas’ strength is the passing game.

Keeping in mind these are all verified numbers from the 17-game regular season that just ended, you can understand when I scratch my head whenever some talks about the Dallas Cowboys running the ball down San Francisco’s throats. Based on all recent evidence, that’s not a strategy likely to be successful. It’s using a weakness to attack a strength.

The San Fran pass-defense finished 23rd in the NFL while the Cowboys passing offense finished sixth

Does that mean running the ball is doomed for failure? No, it just goes against everything we learned about each team this season. I’ll even go so far as to say if the Dallas Cowboys can effectively run the ball at a higher EPA and success rate than they pass, they should by all means lean heavily on that ground game.

But I’ll just remind you we haven’t seen that kind of efficiency from Dallas all year.

So when a respected analyst or pundit tells you the Dallas Cowboys need to do blank against the 49ers, don’t take it as gospel until you’ve fact checked the numbers. A simple glance at this past season tells a pretty clear tale.

Is Kellen Moore holding back? Does he have a secret plan to make the running game dominant? Hey, maybe so (see also article below) but the numbers are in and the pathway to victory looks pretty clear if they just follow it.

Must Read. Has Kellen Moore been saving the offense for the playoffs?. light

Should Dallas try to run the ball on the 49ers? I gave you the numbers. You decide.