Dak Prescott, defense and discipline: Dissecting Cowboys’ big playoff fail vs. 49ers

The Cowboys were outscored by the 49ers in their frustrating 23-17 loss in the NFC wild-card playoffs at home on Sunday. But Dallas didn’t do itself any favors either, with a sloppy performance that went against all its strengths from a 12-5 regular season.

While the No. 6-seeded 49ers advanced to play the No. 1-seeded Packers in the divisional round, the Cowboys will long wonder why they didn’t make it to the Super Bowl for 26 straight years, this time under from Coach Mike. McCarty.

Expectations were high that Dallas could challenge Tampa Bay and Green Bay for the conference championship this year. Instead, the team will have to settle for winning the weak NFC East and having nothing else to show for it.

The biggest disappointment was the fact that quarterback Dak Prescott and the defense didn’t provide enough big plays that were prevalent in 2021. After leading the league in forced penalties against them (127, more than seven per game) on the season regular, the Cowboys redoubled their lack of discipline in the playoffs, with the 49ers giving up 14 penalties for 89 yards.

Here’s a look at how it all went wrong for the Cowboys, one key element at a time:

Dak Prescott: Under pressure and pressing

The Cowboys stay on point when they aggressively distribute the ball in the passing game, but Prescott needs to get into a rhythm with all of his receivers. Top receivers Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Cedrick Wilson were hit 25 times total against the 49ers; only 12 turned into receptions. Lamb was not a factor in the passing game with only one catch as the 49ers’ coverage focused more on him.

Prescott got going in the second half and threw a lot to tight end Dalton Schultz, but that was a sign the 49ers cornerbacks were winning their tough matchups. Dallas didn’t make any of the downfield shots it needed to complete.

The offensive line was pushed and Prescott had to rush shots or buy time out of his pocket. Left guard Conor Williams continued to be a liability and led the penalty onslaught. Right tackle La’el Collins didn’t get a break until 49ers winger Nick Bosa (concussion) was removed from the game. Prescott was captured five times as his team constantly operated behind the chains. He felt like he needed to do too much and was all over the place with some passes.

Dallas is getting very long at its top five forward positions (watch left tackle Tyron Smith and right guard Zack Martin) and needs to focus on improving Collins and Williams (who is a pending free agent). The unit has also struggled to open holes in the running game, which, in turn, has put a greater onus on Prescott to be accurate with his passes and do a lot of the dirty work on the ground.

Prescott’s arm and athleticism put him in special company, but he still needs the help of the staff and more balance on plays to be at his best. The Cowboys didn’t adapt well enough to what the 49ers were doing until it was too late. Being so one-dimensional and predictable against such a versatile and multiple opponent doesn’t pay off in the playoffs.

The defense: losing up front

While Prescott had those five sacks, running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard combined for just 45 rushing yards on 16 carries. In contrast, the Cowboys didn’t once drop Jimmy Garoppolo to linebacker Micah Parsons and the rest of their pass-rushers. They also allowed the 49ers to rush for 169 yards and two touchdowns. Garoppolo needed to pass just 3 yards more than that to win.

Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn got a lot out of a deep line rotation in the regular season, but whoever was in the Cowboys’ front four on Sunday got roughed up. The unit also mixed in rare penalties, such as defensive grabbing on a running play and illegal use of hands to the face. Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory had good borderline seasons, but the top three tackles — Neville Gallimore, Carlos Watkins and Osa Odighizuwa — were weak points and the 49ers crushed them with their inside blockers.

The Cowboys are built to play complementary defense, to stick their ears back and chase the quarterback from a lot of looks with Parsons leading the way from the second level. Cornerback Trevon Diggs has a nose for takeout, but he also got a lot of burnout this season as he needed to cover for too long. Dallas ranked 16th in rushing yards allowed per game, but 4.5 yards per carry allowed was tied for eighth.

When it comes to passing, passing and pass coverage, the Cowboys are in good spots. But those assets don’t mean much when the basics of “running the ball” and “stopping the run” aren’t even in play. The defensive end of the trenches also needs improvement, with Watkins and Gregory also not signed for 2022.

Parsons and Diggs changed the game so dominant that it was easy to forget that their flash covered many of the Cowboys’ substantial personnel problems at other key positions.

The discipline: Yellow and white flags

The Cowboys put on a dominant tune-up performance in Week 18 with Prescott starting against the Eagles. They seemed ready, in the sweet spot between rest and rust, to put on a full, methodical effort against the 49ers. They delivered the opposite of that.

Accumulating penalties is the surest sign of not being ready for a game. There were many more mental and physical errors in key situations. That’s up to Quinn, offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and, of course, McCarthy, who suddenly went from being confident at the end of Year 2 to wondering a bit by Year 3.

Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers were several steps ahead; they anticipated the Cowboys’ game plan and did their best to break it. The Cowboys got caught up in countermeasures. They became more tentative and there were shocking breakdowns on the smaller plays.

The worst moments, the ones that cost the Cowboys their comeback, were back-to-back plays late in the third quarter when Dallas trailed just 16-7. Prescott threw a desperate, questionable pass into coverage on second-28 that turned into an easy interception for 49ers cornerback K’Waun Williams. One play later, wide receiver Deebo Samuel went untouched through the Cowboys defense for a 26-yard touchdown run.

That sequence summed up the afternoon. Prescott was stuck in a bad spot after a wide receiver’s penalty for an illegal low block and subsequent sack. Trying to slow down Samuel, the Cowboys fumbled up front and got lost and out of position in the last seven.

Was it Prescott? The defense? The sanctions? A weak resume within the division? The game call? McCarthy?

Yes to all of that. There were several reasons why the Cowboys missed and fell short of a touchdown. They have a lot more work to do and a lot of key decisions to make in the offseason to come back stronger and get over the divisional hump of the playoffs.