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Can the Cowboys’ Run-Heavy Approach Take Down San Francisco?

Dallas has hit the quarter mark of the NFL season, and Mike McCarthy wasn't kidding about keeping the ball on the ground. It might be their best chance of exacting some revenge against the 49ers, too.
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Tony Pollard will be leaned on early and often against the 49ers. Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys did something no NFL team has ever done in nearly 30 years of trying: they handed Bill Belichick his worst loss as a head coach, by 35 points. Suffice it to say, the Week 3 loss to the Cardinals appears to be a blip on the radar for this otherwise stellar edition of the Cowboys. The defense dominated once again, punctuated by two defensive touchdowns, including DaRon Bland’s second (!) pick-six of the young season.

Dak Prescott didn’t test the Patriots deep too often, but he did put together his second outing with a completion percentage above 80 percent. The more interesting note, however, isn’t how efficient the offense was. No, the interesting part was that this was the second straight week that Dallas called a pass on about 60 percent of its plays after passing on only half of its plays in each of the first two games. Don’t be fooled, though—the NFL average pass rate this season is also right around 60 percent.

We could spend time dissecting the increase in this single-game sample size while talking about all the things that went right in another steamroller victory, but instead, let’s take a step back and look at the year as a whole as we reach the quarter mark of the season. The defense might be the hot topic (deservedly so!) but the offense, with new playcaller Mike McCarthy, has shown enough to get an idea of what it will do the rest of the year. There’s one number we can point to in order to get an idea of whether McCarthy has stuck to his guns when he said he wants to “run the damn ball” this year: 54 percent.

That’s how often the Cowboys have dropped back to pass in 2023 (excluding plays in the final two minutes of each half). It’s one of the lowest rates of throwing the football the Cowboys have had since drafting Prescott in 2016.

Note that the 2022 numbers include five Cooper Rush starts, where the pass rate was below 50 percent, and 12 Prescott starts with a pass rate of about 54 percent.

Relative to the rest of the NFL, Dallas is throwing the ball about 6 percentage points of the time less than average for the second consecutive year. McCarthy really is trying to run the damn ball! On Sunday, he gave carries to six players (four running backs and two wide receivers). And that rushing attack has been one of the more successful in the NFL. Tony Pollard’s efficiency has dipped slightly as the lead back, down from 5.2 yards per carry last year to 4.3 yards per carry, but that’s to be expected when you become the guy. Among running backs with at least 30 carries, he’s in the top 10 in both success rate and EPA/carry. The run game as a whole is following suit, which it needs to do considering the Cowboys run the ball nearly as much as any team in the league.

Looking at raw rush rate can be deceiving, especially for a team whose three wins have come by at least 20 points. Positive game scripts tend to dictate more rushing. But we can account for that somewhat by looking at each team’s expected rushing rate (or conversely, its expected passing rate, as highlighted in the first chart in this piece). The expected rushing rate takes into account factors such as score differential and time remaining, as well as play-level factors including down and distance. Even after accounting for the very run-friendly situations the Cowboys have found themselves in so often, they’re still running the ball about 3 percentage points more often than expected, which amounts to about two extra carries per game.

There is one tiny but possibly huge caveat to all of this. Dallas still hasn’t really played anybody, as the Giants, Jets, Cardinals, and Patriots all sit in some form of disorder and disarray. Yes, good teams beat bad teams, but we’ve yet to see these Cowboys against a good team. That’s all going to change when they travel to face the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday Night Football.

The 49ers have one of the best pass defenses in the NFL, ranking sixth in EPA per dropback allowed. A lot of this comes from a high-end pass rush headlined by Nick Bosa and Javon Hargrave. San Francisco’s 39 percent pressure rate ranks sixth in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. Its run defense, using similar metrics, doesn’t look nearly as good—it ranks 27th in EPA per carry allowed. Just last weekend, the Cardinals averaged 0.05 EPA per carry, the ninth-best mark in the NFL in Week 4. Great news for Dallas, right? Well, not necessarily.

The undefeated 49ers, like the Cowboys, have been on the right side of multiple blowouts. Their schedule hasn’t been a murderer’s row, either. And when routs get to a certain point, the importance of stopping the run tends to diminish, as both teams are looking to get the game over with. When the outcome of the game is still in question, only the Rams were able to get anything going on the ground against the 49ers.

Almost all of the successful rushes against San Francisco this year (successful defined as plays with positive EPA, or plays that put the offense in a better position to score) came when the 49ers already had at least a 75 percent chance of winning. When the outcome was still up in the air, three opponents averaged a combined negative-0.5 EPA per carry. The Rams’ Kyren Williams has been the only back to make a meaningful contribution to his team on the ground against the Niners when it matters.

The Rams have come the closest to beating the 49ers, which in a way bodes well for the new-look Dallas offense. Christian McCaffrey has been a key weapon for the 49ers, but Pollard outpaces him in both yards per carry and rush yards over expectation, per Next Gen Stats. The Dallas offensive line, even hindered by injuries as it has been, has done quite well in the run-blocking department—both PFF and ESPN’s run-block win rate have it as a top-five run-blocking unit. This undoubtedly will be the biggest challenge Dallas has faced this season, but the same can be said for the 49ers. With the run-first approach the Cowboys have adopted, they could replicate (or even surpass) what the Rams did, which should put them in a decent position to hand the 49ers their first loss of the year.


Dan Morse

Dan Morse

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Dan covers the Cowboys for StrongSide. He is a Pacific Northwest native & self-described nerd who has been covering the…

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