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Cowboys biggest advantage over 49ers may exist on special teams

Football Outsiders’ DVOA metrics paint a picture of two teams with comparable offenses and defenses, but the Dallas Cowboys have a clear advantage when it comes to special teams. When the game kicks off on Sunday, Dallas will need to maintain said advantage over the San Francisco 49ers in order to emerge victorious in the wild-card round.

The Cowboys check in as the sixth-best team in special team’s DVOA, and to put how good their coverage and return units are, remember this takes into account Greg Zuerlein’s 12 missed kicks on the season. Dallas ranks 19th in FG/XP DVOA due to those errors, and their kickoffs aren’t great either, landing 19th again. but two units in particular push them back up the overall ranking.

Dallas ranks sixth in kickoff return and at the top of the league, first in punt and coverage. In plain terms, Dallas starts off with great field position after an opponent scores and when their drives fail, they tend to make the opponent travel long distances to get into scoring range.

On the flip side, San Francisco ranks a lowly 26th in special teams DVOA. They rank 15th in FG/XP, 29th in kickoffs, dead last in kickoff returns and 15th in punt returns. Their one strong quality on teams is their punt and coverage game, where they rank No. 5.

The 49ers are Pro Football Focus’ fifth-best team of 2021 (Dallas is second), according to their grading system. On a scale of 0-100 they grade out as a 92.0 score (Dallas is 92.8). On offense, San Francisco jumps up to No. 2 overall (Cowboys are No. 1 at 89.4) with a 86.3 grade.

On defense, the 49ers rank eighth at 73.3 with Dallas 12th at 69.3.

But on special teams SF is in the bottom third, sitting at 21st with a 76.8 grade while Dallas sits 15th at 83.3.

If Zuerlein isn’t missing kicks, the third phase seems to be a place Dallas can exact a considerable advantage.

Between their Pro Bowl punter in Brian Anger, their elite coverage unit led by C.J. Goodwin and big-play returners such as Tony Pollard and CeeDee Lamb, Dallas can influence field position even if they don’t get the big-play return.

Conversely, giving up a big special teams play has to be guarded against, as it’s an advantage Dallas can’t afford to relinquish. If two teams are rated equally in terms of offense and defense, then the hidden yardage aspect will be paramount to deciding who wins.

Dallas can’t afford to give that up in this win-or-stay-home contest on Sunday.


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