The San Francisco 49ers Week 15 matchup against the Dallas Cowboys needs to end in a victory for the 49ers if they want any possibility of a postseason berth to remain viable. They would have been in a much better position had they gotten a victory last week against the Washington Football Team , but the math shows that it is premature to close the door on the 49ers earning a playoff spot. They need a win against the Cowboys, though, or their season is probably over.
How the 49ers Week 15 Game Can End in a Win for Them
There is little margin for error for them going forward. They must beat the Cowboys. Not just because of what a loss would do to their mathematical probability at securing a playoff berth, but that the Cowboys are theoretically a very beatable team. If the 49ers can not beat a team with the types of glaring weaknesses the Cowboys possess, it is easy to conclude that the 49ers simply do not deserve a playoff spot this season.
The 49ers Week 15 showdown is arriving with some added challenges. Deebo Samuel will be out for the rest of the regular season. Samuel injured his hamstring on the first play of the game against Washington. The offense has to figure out a way to mitigate his absence. Brandon Aiyuk must have big games down the stretch for this passing game to have any prospect of moving the ball downfield. The team believes that George Kittle has a chance to return to the practice field this week, but it is unclear how realistic it would be for him to be available against the Cowboys. That certainly puts more of an emphasis on Aiyuk. He is coming off a game against Washington in which he caught ten passes for 119 yards, both career highs.
Limit Turnovers on Offense
Nick Mullens has to limit turnovers and find a way to get the ball into the hands of Aiyuk. This 49ers offense works best when the running game sets up the passing game. Chunks of yards on the ground make the opposing defense vulnerable to the play-action. Opportunities downfield in the passing game then get opened up.
The present challenge is that Mullens is not doing anything to make opposing defenses believe he can make even the most routine throws accurately. Along with an interior offensive line that has not allowed Mullens much time to throw, Mullens himself has not been scanning the field very well when getting ample time to throw.
Establish the Running Game
Even when Jimmy Garoppolo is under center, this offense operates best when the run game opens up opportunities for the passing game. The offense struggles when forced to abandon the run game and heavily throw to get back into games. They must put up points early from a quickly established run game.
The 49ers have to be able to take advantage of this abysmal run defense. The Cowboys have given up the most rushing yards per run, total rushing yards, first downs on the ground, and are tied for the fourth-most rushing touchdowns allowed. If this offense can not run the ball effectively against this Cowboys defense, then they have far more problems right now than the 5-8 record indicates.
Raheem Mostert is dealing with a lingering ankle injury. He is getting imaging done on his ankle that should reveal the likelihood of whether he plays against the Cowboys or not. If he does not play against the Cowboys, it will be a definite blow to this offense. Mostert is averaging five yards per run and 64.7 yards per game this season. Without Mostert, the lead back would presumably be Jeff Wilson, who has only averaged 3.9 yards per run in his last three games. His 112-yard performance against the New England Patriots before his injury shows what Wilson can do in a featured role, though. This run defense is worse than probably any that the 49ers have faced this year, as well. Wilson getting an expanded role would also open up more touches for either Tevin Coleman or Jerick McKinnon.
Neither of those two has factored in much these last handful of games. Coleman is averaging just 1.7 yards per run this year. Although McKinnon has played in all 13 games this year, he has not had any carries for the previous two games. He only had three carries against the Los Angles Rams three weeks ago. It is unclear what Coleman or McKinnon could bring to an expanded role behind Wilson. If they cannot get it going against this porous Cowboys run defense, though, there is not much confidence in them being able to succeed against any opposing defense around the league.
Attack an Overall Weak Defense
The Cowboys allow the ninth-most yards per play in the league and the tenth most total yards. They are especially vulnerable against the run, but their passing defense leaves a lot to be desired as well. It feels like this is as good of an opportunity as any for this 49ers offense to get back on track.
This defense has allowed the highest touchdown pass percentage in the league and has defended the fewest passes. They tie for the league lead in total touchdown passes allowed and are tied for third in forcing the fewest interceptions. They have the fourth-lowest interception percentage as a defense and have the fifth-highest opposing quarterback rating in the league.
Mullens has struggled as of late. This Cowboys defense offers a good chance for him and the rest of the offense to rebound, though. This Cowboys defense ties for third in highest third-down conversion rate allowed to opposing offenses. That stat bodes well for the 49ers offense to prolong drives and put points up on the board.
Continue Strong Defensive Performance Against Recently-Lackluster Offense
The Cowboys offense would have to pick up a lot of the slack if their defense falls vulnerable to this 49ers offense. This 49ers defense remains a strength, though. The pass rush is not what it was last year. However, the defense as a whole is not the primary culprit of their 5-8 record.
The Cowboys offense has the second-highest percentage of drives ending in a turnover and has committed the third-most turnovers. They have also given up the ninth most sacks, and rank just 20th in yards per play. They also rank only 20th in yards per rush, and just 20th in completion percentage. They only rank 21st in third-down conversion percentage and just 21st in yards per completion as well. Their ranking is just 22nd in quarterback rating and tied for 22nd in both rushing touchdowns and touchdown pass percentage.
Despite their big names, the offense has not been good this year since Dak Prescott got hurt. Prescott threw for 450 yards or more in three of his four full games. That offense has not reached 300 passing yards in any of the eight games Prescott has not started. In the five Prescott starts, Ezekiel Elliott ran for 364 yards and averaged 4.1 yards per run. In the eight games that Prescott has not started, Elliott has run for 468 yards and averaged 3.8 yards per run. Elliott averaged 72.8 rushing yards per game when Prescott was the starting quarterback. That total has dipped to 58.5 rushing yards per game when Prescott has not started.
Without Prescott as the quarterback, this offense has not looked good. In the eight games started by quarterbacks other than Prescott, the Cowboys have averaged just 16.9 points per game. That would only rank higher than the New York Jets throughout this season. When Prescott was in the lineup, the Cowboys averaged 32.6 points per game. That would be the highest in the league throughout this season. The Cowboys have gone from a premier offense with Prescott to one of the worst without him. Their rushing stats have gone down without a quarterback like Prescott to draw defensive focus. Even with weapons in the passing game like Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup, Cowboys quarterbacks not named Prescott have struggled.
Lamb had two games of more than 100 yards in Prescott starts. He also did not have less than 59 yards in any game with Prescott. With quarterbacks other than Prescott, Lamb has only surpassed than 59-yard mark twice in eight games. He also does not have more than 75 yards in any of those eight games. Cooper averaged 84.8 yards per game in Prescott starts. That total has decreased to 64.8 yards per game without Prescott. Gallup averaged 69.6 yards per game in Prescott starts but averages 37.8 yards per game in the eight games without Prescott.
For a full season, based on those rates, Cooper is essentially a 1,000-yard receiver without Prescott instead of a 1,300-yard receiver with him. Lamb is essentially a 600-yard receiver without him instead of a 1,300-yard receiver with him. Gallup is essentially a 600-yard receiver without him instead of a 1,100 with him. Those rates with Prescott likely would not have remained as lofty, but the point stands that Prescott makes these talented receivers significantly better.
A 49ers Week 15 Win Can Keep Postseason Hopes Alive
There is no reason the 49ers can not beat this Cowboys team. Their offense has not been the same without Prescott. Their defense struggles to defend both the pass and the run. The 49ers Week 15 gameplan needs to focus on running the ball with ferocity. They have to avoid committing costly turnovers. The defense needs to follow up with a similar performance to what they were able to do against Washington. They can keep their postseason chances alive for another week with a big win here.
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