Cowboys-49ers is the ultimate NFL playoff chess match between Kyle Shanahan and Dan Quinn

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn will always be intertwined.

Yes, they are the main architects in one of the biggest collapses in NFL history (look away, Falcons fans). Quinn was the head coach and Shanahan was the playcaller that brought then Falcons QB Matt Ryan to MVP levels. Then 28-3 happened, Shanahan took his offense to San Francisco, and Quinn was ultimately fired before taking a coordinator job with the Dallas Cowboys.

Now, both are the masterminds behind one of the most impressive units on both sides of the ball. You can look at any metric or rating you want and you’ll find San Francisco near the top of the league in offense and Dallas at the top defensively. DVOA? The 49ers are sixth on offense and the Cowboys are second on defense (behind the 49ers, of course). EPA/play? The Niners are fourth offensively and Dallas is second defensively.

This is going to be good on good, but we have seen this recently. The 49ers went into Dallas and beat the Cowboys 24-17 in the Wild Card last year. So, how much has changed in between then, for both Shanahan and Quinn’s respective units?

Well, a lot.

San Francisco destroys teams in 21

Kyle Shanahan and 21 personnel might be the greatest collaboration with 21 in it since Her Loss dropped in November of 2022. In 21 personnel (2 backs, normally a RB and a FB, 1 TE and 2 WRs), the 49ers are a top two team in EPA out of the grouping in the 2022 regular season, but this has been something the Shanahan 49ers have been trending towards, even last year. They’re a 21 personnel based team, and when Shanahan can do that, he normally crushes opposing defenses.

Major Distribution out of 12

Game Dropbacks in 21 personnel Runs in 21 personnel Dropbacks in 12 personnel Runs in 12 personnel EPA/pass in 21 EPA/run in 21 EPA/pass in 12 EPA/run in 12
Game Dropbacks in 21 personnel Runs in 21 personnel Dropbacks in 12 personnel Runs in 12 personnel EPA/pass in 21 EPA/run in 21 EPA/pass in 12 EPA/run in 12
2021 vs Dallas 7 12 4 3 0.068 -0.25 -0.59 0.15
2021 166 209 33 59 0.139 -0.04 -0.24 -0.14
2022 pre-McCaffrey Trade 34 62 20 20 0.305 -0.28 -0.724 -0.01
2022 post-McCaffrey Trade 110 132 45 82 0.088 0.1 0.4 -0.04

Ever since trading for Christian McCaffrey, Shanahan has stirred up a Madame Mim level of wicked designs for the 49ers offense out of 21 personnel. When McCaffrey, FB Kyle Juszczyk, WRs Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel and TE George Kittle are on the field, the 49ers have the equivalent of the NFL’s MonStars, with every player being capable of a big play at any moment.

Compounded with this is the play design by Shanahan in this personnel, and how it causes problems vs opposing defenses. Against 21 personnel, defenses have to stay in their heavier defensive packages to mitigate the threat of the run game. However, how do defenses even try to defend a look like this:

Yeah, that’s Christian McCaffrey lined up out wide while WR Deebo Samuel is lined up at RB. This is every Madden player’s dream, but Shanahan is bringing it to real life. Because San Francisco is in 21 personnel, the Niners match it with their base defense: 3-4 with both inside linebackers on the field. The Niners ran outside zone with a dart (backside slant) attached to it. The outside linebacker can’t chase Samuel down because of the threat McCaffrey is in the passing game. It makes life easier on Deebo Samuel.

Again, the Niners are in 21 personnel here, but this time they’re in shotgun. Samuel is once again in the backfield with McCaffrey out at receiver. They run play action, with McCaffrey running into the flat, but watch what the gravity of McCaffrey and all of these players does to the Seahawks defense. They’re in Cover 2, but with McCaffrey running to the flat, the corner drives on that hard. Brandon Aiyuk clears out the 12 field safety, and Juszczyk holds the linebacker down with a hook over the middle. This leaves George Kittle wide open over the middle.

The spacing the offense has in 21 personnel gives QB Brock Purdy easy throws to take and make, making his life easier.

Shanahan is doing his best job coaching and offensive play design wise since the 2016 year with Atlanta, but instead of beating teams with 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) like he did for the Falcons, he’s using his unique players in heavier formations to exploit matchups. Interestingly enough, against Dallas last year, the Niners were in 11 personnel a lot more: not as much 21 or 12 personnel. However, that team didn’t have Christian McCaffrey or this version of Brandon Aiyuk.

A formal apology to Dan Quinn

I’m going to be honest: I was not completely sold on the adjustments Cowboys DC Dan Quinn would make this season. A member of the Seattle Seahawks tree, last year the Cowboys were almost exclusively a single high, middle of the field closed team. However, this year that changed. Although then Cowboys still play a lot of Cover 1 (a man, single high defense), they’ve adjusted away from heavy Cover 3 defense.

Dallas Domination on Defense

Year MOFC snaps MOFO snaps Man Coverage Snaps Zone Coverage Snaps Blitz rate Pressure Rate
Year MOFC snaps MOFO snaps Man Coverage Snaps Zone Coverage Snaps Blitz rate Pressure Rate
2021 343 164 227 159 29.10% 36.50%
2022 268 189 172 131 25.60% 40.70%

Of course, having a superhuman like Micah Parsons in your room will help a lot, but the Cowboys are extremely good at using their personnel to disguise coverage and send pressure from different areas, hence the higher pressure rate with a lower blitz rate. Quinn uses Parsons as a queen on the chessboard, finding him one on one pass rushing opportunities while also using the attention he draws to open up things for other defenders.

On this play against Tampa, the Cowboys are in a 5 man front, but Parsons is off the ball (he was off the ball quite a bit against Tampa) and normal inside linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Anthony Barr are on the edge. The offensive line has to man protect this, to account for every man on the line of scrimmage. This means the RB has to take on Parsons if he blitzes…not a great idea, but Tom Brady knows that, so he’s going to try and throw the hot route.

However, Quinn pulls both LBs on the edge out into the pass coverage and only brings Parsons, who detonates on the RB, forcing Brady off platform and into an incompletion.

What helps this Cowboys defense is the amount of versatile players they have on the back end as well. This is from earlier in the season against the Commanders, and the Cowboys are running Tampa 2, a coverage with two deep safeties, two corners defending the flats and a middle runner down the middle of the field. Where Quinn gets versatile is using his DBs in different positions, such as CB Israel Mukuamu. Mukuamu is the middle runner here and S Donovan Wilson looks like he’s dropping into a hole like in a single high look. The Cowboys fan out into Tampa 2 and get an interception.

Dan Quinn’s ability to self scout as a coach and adjust has taken this Cowboys defense over the top, and put them in a position to knock off the 2 seed in the NFC. The health of S Jayron Kearse as well as Parsons will be huge going into Sunday, but if both are healthy, they should be major players.

Key to the Game

The key to the game rests on the shoulders of QB Brock Purdy. While he has been sensational in his time as the starting QB, what’s been odd is how little teams have pressured him, especially when the book on QB Jimmy Garoppolo was to blitz him. Purdy has done fairly well according to the data against the blitz, but again, that sample size is tiny.

While Purdy has been very good, he is still a rookie, and can be fooled by blitzes he just doesn’t see or feel. Unlike Garoppolo, Purdy isn’t afraid of using his legs to escape pressure, but once he gets outside the pocket…I’m not sure what happens.

What Dan Quinn does a very good job of is not only bringing pressure, but disguising it to make one thing look like another, and get a guy free without bringing the entire house.

The game of chess between Kyle Shanahan and Dan Quinn on Sunday is one not only one year, but multiple years in the making. Their development from their days in Atlanta will be on full display on Sunday, with an NFC Championship game on the line.

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