I am sure the Cowboys would love to play an offense like the 49ers every single week. That would make defending a heck of a lot easier than some of the more challenging offenses they have and will face in 2017.
That can't become a reality -- not in this league. But perhaps the next best thing is simply having their parts on the field all at the same time.
Sunday marked the very first time we saw the best options at all of the defensive line and linebacker positions in the same game at the same time. Now, as we very well know, part of football is dealing with attrition, "next man up" and no excuses. That is absolutely what championship teams are made of, and why football is a unique sport with no equal to its marathon of damaged bodies and teams' abilities to carry on.
But to see linebackers Anthony Hitchens and Sean Lee side by side for the first time this season with David Irving and DeMarcus Lawrence in front of them demonstrates how this defense is different than the one that went to Denver or the one that was exposed by Jared Goff and the Rams just a few weeks ago. Now, can they keep the pieces together? Anyone who saw Lee limping in the second half is hoping for the best and fearing the worst. This is a violent game that takes an amazing toll on those who play it. But if they can stay healthy, perhaps this defense is better than we know.
They were hardly tested Sunday. Yes, the defense showed a few moments of vulnerability, but the fact is that the 49ers were playing a rookie quarterback who had never started at this level before. C.J. Beathard may turn into something, but in this game he didn't show many signs of a long and decorated career. The Cowboys were able to get five sacks on a guy who looked rather confused about what he was looking at and would hang on to the ball at a level that would be hazardous to his health.
There are plenty of issues with this defense and what they need to do to is pull their own weight over the next few months, but we should also be aware that they are doing some things at a level we haven't seen in quite some time.
They are creating negative plays for their opponents at a very high rate. Very high. Sacks and tackles for losses are near the top of the NFL. Third in negative plays and first in the NFC in this stat. They have backed up their opponents 242 yards so far in just six games. They have have a game in hand on several opponents and now sit just out of the top five with 21 sacks in six games. When have you seen the Cowboys' defense be capable of averaging 3.5 sacks per game?
So, yes, there are some things to worry about. But let's also recognize that they are generating negative plays that put their opponents in second- and third-and-long situations. This is a very good development of a defense that is accused of never making plays. And if they are going to take the ball away when the sacks occur, now we have something to work with. Below, we will look at some video of Hitchens and Lee together against the run and it will likely make you consider whether the Rams and Packers would have had the same success had they both been on the field. Can't change the past, but it can absolutely impact the future.
WEEKLY DATA BOX
Can we play you every week? Under 300 yards, 10 points, five sacks, low time of possession and just one explosive play allowed. When your opponent gets into your red zone just twice in a game and you take the ball away on one of those trips, you really had a nice day.
Now, we won't get carried away because the opponent was admittedly very weak, but you can only play the opponent in front of you.
C.J. BEATHARD THROW CHART
Beathard and the 49ers didn't have much success, but they did have more to the defense's left side, which suggests we should start tracking more of the corners. Moving forward, we will try to get a sense of whether or not the young corners are better off deployed to either side. I do know Anthony Brown has been attacked quite a bit this season and is a player with some limitations. He has played a lot, and the Cowboys already have redeemed plenty of value from the 2016 draft pick, but I am curious what his ideal role will be going forward.
Below, please see that the Cowboys started bringing extra pressure Sunday. I think this is opponent-based for the most part, as the 49ers proved they didn't deal with it very well, so you keep calling it. I do not believe this will carry over to Washington, where Kirk Cousins has generally been quite good against blitzing. More of a one-week blip, I should think.
WEEKLY BLITZ RATES
Twenty-three splash plays -- the second most since we started recording them six seasons ago. They had 24 last season against Tampa Bay in another big day for Irving. We also had the rare three-splash play day from Lawrence, which we will look at below:
SPLASH PLAY TOTALS - SEASON
It is clearly a race for second place now, as our soon-to-be-champion, Lawrence, just keeps dominating.
We love looking at video of the good and the bad. Well, there was almost no bad (I will spare you the Jeff Heath missed tackle play), so we can focus on a number of very nice negative plays forced by this athletic and aggressive defense from their day in Santa Clara:
We have seen a few weeks of poor linebacker play against the run, so let's look at some textbook work here of seeing the play, shooting the gap like a heat-seeking missile and ending it on the other side of the line before the ballcarrier can get upfield on you. Welcome Lee and his ability that combines great athleticism with knowing plays from the snap and diagnosing them as well as anyone we have seen in a Cowboys uniform. This is wonderful. Nobody else could do this in his absence.
The best defensive line on third downs is pretty clearly Lawrence (No. 90) at left defensive end, Maliek Collins (No. 96) at left defensive tackle, Irving (No. 95) at right defensive tackle and Tyrone Crawford (No. 98) at right defensive end. Well, here it is, and you see how active everyone is until Irving breaks through to get the sack. He is absurdly athletic and long for a defensive tackle and remains a force against any guard or center.
You get a couple of guys inside who attract attention, then you allow your ends to have a chance against tight ends or running backs -- or both. This time, Crawford gets home (he is coming to life!) and buries poor Beathard on this play. You have four active linemen, and suddenly someone will find a tasty opportunity.
We don't often give one player three splashes on one play -- in fact, I can't recall ever doing it before. But if Lawrence is going to get a sack (one), force a fumble (two), and then recover that fumble (three), I think it is appropriate. That is five-time Pro Bowler Joe Staley he just danced and worked around with such ease. Lawrence takes 49ers points of the board with a dominating individual effort. The man is in the zone.
Early third quarter, this is another tackle for loss from Lee. Unfortunately, here he is using his quad to make the tackle and this is certainly where the limp came from. Great anticipation to find the hole and the runner on third and 3, but using your leg to make the tackle might be hazardous for your health, Sean.
Here is the Jaylon Smith we have been looking for. Put him in good situations and keep him out of bad ones. Second and 4 is a great spot to bring him on a blitz and allow him to attack going forward. This looks like the Notre Dame version of the young man, and now with the starters back, we can stop putting him in third-down spots where he can get attacked. Like I have said, he has been an issue, but the blame should be on not having a plan in the event that Lee or Hitchens got hurt (or both). I still think Smith can be a real factor moving forward.
These last several plays are all Hitchens. He is about to become a free agent and we originally thought they would let him walk, allowing Smith to take his spot. This season has me wondering about the wisdom behind that premise and whether the Cowboys are thinking the same. You can't go back and change your previous moves, but perhaps we should consider thinking hard about future moves based on new information. The information is that Lee and Hitchens together look awesome. And there are no replacements at the present time who can replicate this. Let's watch No. 59 for a few snaps:
Here he comes on a linebacker pressure but is able to change course and get to the running back behind the line of scrimmage in a demonstration of impressive ability for a tackle for loss.
Here he looks like Lee (who is right behind him), diagnosing, shooting the gap and beating his blocker to make the play. That right there is some awesome work.
And here, he is not the only player who made this happen, but goodness gracious, coming from that far away to end the play at the opposite sideline is what we hoped Smith would bring to the table. He still may, but right now, the sudden difference that the return of Lee and Hitchens made against lateral running plays is simply astounding.
I look forward to that duo continuing its fine work in the weeks to come.