ARLINGTON, Tex. — The San Francisco 49ers’ offensive blueprint in its upset of the Dallas Cowboys was classic. Coach Kyle Shanahan used all his staples — including misdirection, heavy personnel and rushing rates from a bygone era — to stretch the Cowboys from sideline to sideline and get defenders out of position, which opened up cutback lanes for runners and quick, easy throws for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
Dallas’s struggles to stop the straightforward approach frustrated team owner Jerry Jones — “I don’t think we saw any surprises out there tonight,” he grumbled after the 23-17 loss — and highlighted why San Francisco may have a Super Bowl ceiling even as the NFC’s sixth seed.
San Francisco needed a win in Week 18 to qualify for the postseason, but it wasn’t just lucky to get in. The 49ers were one of six teams to rank in the top 10 of both offensive and defensive efficiency by Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) metric. And while the team has flaws, particularly defending deep passes and on the right side of its offensive line, it’s possible the winning formula can work Saturday night at the top-seeded Green Bay Packers.
“It’s not going to be easy going into Lambeau,” Garoppolo said. “We know it’s going to be a tough challenge for us, but we are ready for it.”
There are reasons to doubt San Francisco’s approach will be as effective against Green Bay. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is more consistent than Dak Prescott, and the 49ers may be without star edge rusher Nick Bosa (concussion) and key linebacker Fred Warner (ankle).
But even if Green Bay hits the explosive plays Dallas didn’t, even if it builds a lead, San Francisco’s clock-dominant approach can still work. In Week 18, when the Los Angeles Rams led 17-3 at halftime, Shanahan stuck to the run and got some of the best throws of Garoppolo’s career to force overtime. This commitment to the run could trouble a Packers defense that allowed 4.7 yards per rush, tied for third-worst in the NFL.
Shanahan’s complex rushing attack is built on outside zone, mismatches created by fullback Kyle Juszczyk’s versatility and the elite blocking of tight end George Kittle. Shanahan likes quicker backs who can get the edge for an explosive play, and though he doesn’t have as much talent as he did in 2019 — the main running back is Elijah Mitchell, a rookie sixth-round pick from Louisiana Lafayette — he has unlocked the potential of all-pro wide receiver Deebo Samuel to complement him.
Samuel is San Francisco’s most indispensable player. He has been a wide receiver, running back, in-line blocker, kick returner and passer (he threw a 24-yard touchdown pass against the Rams). The 6-foot, 215-pound star can catch a third-down slant on one play and motion into the backfield to take a dive pitch the next. On Sunday, the third-year pro from South Carolina had 10 carries for 72 yards, giving him two of the three best rushing totals by a wide receiver in NFL postseason history.
“It shocks me; it shocks defenses when they see it for the first time,” Garoppolo said of Samuel’s versatility Sunday. “He played his a-- off today.”
The major question mark is, as always, the quarterback. Shanahan has minimized Garoppolo before — he attempted just eight passes in the win over Green Bay that sent San Francisco to the Super Bowl in 2020 — but Garoppolo has flashed an ability to deliver in big moments. Garoppolo gritted through a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his thumb to deliver one of the best throws of his career in Week 18, a 43-yard strike to Samuel to set up the tying score.
On Sunday, Garoppolo excelled at the blueprint for the first half, hitting quick throws to avoid Dallas’s superb pass rush, but in the second half, he showed old weaknesses against pressure, particularly up the middle. Garoppolo missed one third-down throw when wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk had burned Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs, and he overthrew a receiver for the interception that led to a short field and put Dallas back in the game.
This season, when Garoppolo avoided turnovers, San Francisco was a top-five unit. But he made a turnover-worthy play on 4.6 percent of his pass plays, according to Pro Football Focus, the second-worst rate among starters. Against Green Bay, which has a strong rushing attack of its own and a less forgiving quarterback, Garoppolo will need to avoid those mistakes — though it’s also fair to question Shanahan’s fourth-down decision-making after he elected not to go for it on two fourth-and-one situations, including one at the Dallas 22.
Despite the second-half miscues Sunday, Shanahan praised his quarterback. He seemed to echo what offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel told reporters last week: “We’re seeing the best football Jimmy has played.”
Early in the fourth quarter Sunday, running onto the field, Samuel unintentionally captured the swagger of San Francisco’s offense. He mouthed to his coach: “Give me the ball.”
Shanahan did. He called an outside pitch to Samuel that he said was “never” meant to go to the opposite side of the field. But when Samuel started outside, he saw defenders flowing hard to beat him there.
“They kind of overplayed it, and I played it kind of slow, saw the cutback and just hit it,” Samuel said. “They were overplaying it a lot today. It was just a matter of me seeing the hole and hitting it.”
Seconds later — with the versatility, physicality and misdirection that define the offense — Samuel was in the end zone. He jogged back to the sideline through a heavy rain of hands slapping his helmet and shoulder pads. He ducked around a teammate and pointed to Shanahan, whose eyes broke from his play sheet just long enough to see. He grinned.