Dallas Cowboys vs San Francisco 49ers: An “Official” Breakdown

Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /
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Elijah Mitchell, RB, San Francisco 49ers Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Elijah Mitchell, RB, San Francisco 49ers Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports /

Offensive Tendencies

Rushing Offense

Shanahan = Wide Zone, or so we have been told. There is no doubt he runs a good amount of inside zone (IZ) and outside zone (OZ) runs, but the real value of Shanahan’s offense is that he can run any type of run from the same formations.

When teams were breaking outside zone runs by having penetrating 2Ti (2 technique inside) defenders that could effectively stalemate combo blocks, he reverted to Gap runs like duo runs, tosses, and powers even combining aspects of all for the cherry on top.

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It left defensive coordinators finding the optimal gaps to fill while Shanahan was enjoying flip-flopping. It can be ironically said that Shanahan reinvented the run in the NFL and it’s partially true considering how efficient they are.

In this example against the Tennessee Titans (a game they lost), San Francisco was incredibly efficient running IZ and OZ over and over again. The Titans are a base 3-4/3-3-5 team giving players like Bud Dupree and Harold Landry the edge to set fitting the interior with big powerful guys like Denico Autry, Jeffrey Simmons, and Teair Tart.

While Dupree and Landry are solid moving laterally, the same necessarily can’t be said for the interior three. This was incredibly significant because, throughout the game, San Francisco’s interior offensive line was successfully reach-blocking at the first level.

However, when San Francisco tried to break tendency and run duo or a traditional dive, Tennessee was able to hold its ground. The interior three were strong enough to hold double teams preventing the guards from reaching their second-level assignment allowing the linebackers the freedom to pursue the ball carriers.

So sure, there is a recipe to win against this offensive line, but as evident by the picture above, from, essentially, the same look they ran two different plays. This team will run Zone tosses, IZ, OZ, Dives, Duo, Pin/Pull Sweeps, Jet Sweeps, and End Arounds.

That diversity of a running attack is super difficult to game plan because they’re constantly trying to exploit matchups on the field; advantageous matchups can be a matter of athleticism or even a matter of effort.

If defensive backs show they’re lining up soft (off coverage or press without paying attention) against the 49ers’ offense, they are susceptible to a big run from Deebo Samuel that likely scores a touchdown.

So what’s the expectation against this team? Almost every run play comes from under center. If San Francisco lines up in Shotgun, they are almost exclusively passing the ball. The lone exception to this rule would require a Deebo Samuel jet-sweep type motion. Fortunately, it’s not something San Francisco does often so consider that a blessing…


With Keanu Neal sitting out Sunday’s game, it leaves Micah Parsons and Leighton Vander Esch as the starting linebackers. With depth also fairly thin at the moment, naturally expect a lot of Big Nickel with Jayron Kearse filling in as the nickel defender. This should theoretically work well for the team as Kearse is big enough to play as a second-level defender showing good toughness and physicality.

Leighton Vander Esch’s problems when dealing with motion have been discussed at length, but I don’t necessarily see that being as a big a problem come Sunday. San Francisco uses motion, but they like to motion Kyle Juszczyk and George Kittle to wham the edge on a Power or cover backside on a Split Zone.

As discussed before, it is imperative the Dallas interior defensive line not lose track of their positioning. The Cowboys have played zone running teams opting to slant their defensive linemen penetrating in the opposite direction of the OL and it has generally worked out well for them with Parsons and Vander Esch showing the ability to clean up the outside run. Hopefully, the trend can continue against one of the best rushing minds in the NFL.