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'Versatility on versatility': Kyle Shanahan’s offense vs. Dan Quinn’s defense in Cowboys-49ers matchup

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 1/15/2022 Jori Epstein

The Cowboys know it.

They’re also sick of hearing about it.   

Yes, Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers scheme screams versatility. Yes, a receiver like Deebo Samuel is liable to power downfield as a running back while tight end George Kittle is equally lethal as a blocker and pass-catcher. Yes, the 49ers will blend mental acuity with toughness as they dial up diverse plays from identical formations, challenging defensive opponents’ ability to predict where and how they’ll go.

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A Cowboys reformed defense says: So what?

Their coordinator has adopted a similar mentality.

“It’s going to be versatility on versatility,” Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons said.

The 49ers enter Sunday’s NFC wildcard matchup averaging the most yards per play (6.11) in the league. No team has a better red-zone completion rate than their 66.67%. The Cowboys rank 20th and 21st defensively in those categories, but improved from 28th in scoring defense in 2020 to 7th in 2021. The matchup that will ensue will result both from talent and scheme as former colleagues face off.

In 2015 and 2016, now-49ers coach Shanahan was Falcons offensive coordinator while now-Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn was Falcons head coach. The offensive- and defensive-minded football minds collaborated, each witness to an inside glimpse into the others’ game-plan process. But perhaps the same trait the coaches admire about the other is what neutralizes the familiarity edge. Because each coordinator’s recent success has stemmed less from steadfast schematic principles than an eagerness to adapt. 

“He’s different again in terms of how he’s utilizing personnel,” Quinn said this week. “That’s the sign of a good coach. He’s tough, he’s gritty, he knows how to attack not just the field vertically but horizontally as well. That’s what makes the matchups tough because he really does attack the entire field and puts guys in positions to play. That’s one of the things I most respect about him: utilizing and finding the unique stuff that a player has and featuring that in their very best ways.”

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Shanahan, similarly, said watching film of the 2021 Cowboys defense does not resemble his former boss’ Atlanta look. Philosophy, not just personnel, has evolved.

“Just coverage-wise and stuff, it’s very different,” Shanahan said. “Not as much cover-three and the type of man coverages that they’re doing, that’s impressive for Dan to do it a certain way his whole career and then to make the adjustments.

“It’s hard to deal with.”

Samuel will keep 49ers and Cowboys fans on the edge of their seats Sunday after a 2021 campaign featuring 77 catches for 1,405 yards and six touchdowns…in addition to 59 carries for 365 yards and eight rushing touchdowns. San Francisco running backs attack the perimeter frequently and often suddenly. The Cowboys secondary knows it must be alert.

“Got to be clean with your eyes,” Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs described the discipline required. “Lot of moving parts and putting people in different spots.”

Kittle, too, will bring rare athleticism as well as brute strength that he’ll use to clear running lanes or drag defenders along his yards after catch. But the Cowboys signed veteran safety Jayron Kearse last season just for such matchups, Kearse’s size-speed blend enabling him to travel sideline to sideline and matchup with players of different styles.

“Jayron is that guy,” Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s that guy that can cover the tweener type player or the bigger physical tight ends or the smaller quicker guys coming out of the back field.” Kearse embraces the chance to rise to the challenge, securing an interception in Kansas City earlier this season when faced off with similarly elite tight end Travis Kelce.

“Ready for the task,” Kearse said. “He has to go against me, too. So I kind of get ticked off when I’m being asked ‘Kittle this’ ‘Kittle that.’

“He has to play me, too. So we’ll see how that shakes out.”

The Cowboys will look to collapse the pocket by sending pass rushers Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence rushing alternately from right, left and interior looks; and All-Pro rookie linebacker Micah Parsons will continue to shift between coverage responsibilities and pressure.

The challenge is steep, the physicality level demanded high.

But Parsons says he won’t let the 49ers bully his squad.

“I’m from Harrisburg, where the bullies get bullied,” Parsons said. “There’s a bully in every gym. There’s a bully everywhere you go. But at some point, it takes someone to stand up and fight.

“I ain’t never back down from a challenge.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Versatility on versatility': Kyle Shanahan’s offense vs. Dan Quinn’s defense in Cowboys-49ers matchup


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