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5 Players to Watch in the 49ers' Playoff-Opener at Dallas

They’ll take on a major historical rival, the NFC East-winning Dallas Cowboys (12-5) at 1:30 p.m. (PT) on Sunday.

For the second time in the Kyle Shanahan/Jimmy Garoppolo Era, the San Francisco 49ers (10-7) are in the playoffs. They’ll take on a major historical rival, the NFC East-winning Dallas Cowboys (12-5) at 1:30 p.m. (PT) on Sunday. 

Here are Five Players to Watch in Garoppolo’s quest for NVP: 

Leighton Vander Esch, Linebacker, #55 — Dallas Cowboys 

ESPN’s Mina Kimes dropped the most important stat for this game on both NFL Live and her podcast. 

“Not only is [the Cowboys’] run defense pretty average, they’re significantly below average when it comes to stopping running backs when they use motion,” Kimes said on NFL Live. “In fact, they’re third worst in the NFL, allowing more than six yards per carry when opposing teams use motion. That is a problem and that is why these young linebackers gotta keep their heads on a swivel because they will be challenged in this game.” 

Leighton Vander Esch and Micah Parsons will have to make key adjustments at the line due to San Francisco’s constant presnap motions. They’re going to have to play every down as safety-turned-linebacker Keanu Neal (chest/elbow) was ruled out. 

The two linebackers will also have to make lots of open-field tackles with running back Elijah Mitchell (17 broken tackles) and wide receiver Deebo Samuel (22 broken tackles) destined for 28-plus combined carries. 

Tony Pollard, Running Back, #20 — Dallas Cowboys 

Defensive linemen D.J. Jones, Arik Armstead and Arden Key are having excellent seasons. They are fresh off stuffing the Rams, holding them to 2.37 yards per carry. 

While Ezekiel Elliott faces a tough fight in the middle, the electric Tony Pollard can provide explosive runs on the outside. 

Pollard (foot) was a full participant in practice this week. He averages 5.5 yards per carry and 8.6 yards per reception. Overall he is averaging 47.9 rushing yards and 22.5 receiving yards per game. He is also one of the best kick returners in the NFL, with a touchdown and average of 28.8 yards per return this year. 

The 49ers have been gashed by special teams. They cannot afford to consistently give Dallas a short field. Robbie Gould must kick touchbacks on Sunday. 

Emmanuel Moseley, Cornerback, #4 — San Francisco 49ers 

For the first time since Week 1, there’s no question who should be the 49ers’ two outside corners (hint: it’s the two who had interceptions last week). 

With the other side of the defense not being as penalty prone thanks to the return of Emmanuel Moseley, the rookie Ambry Thomas would be the logical defender for Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott to target. 

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Yet when looking at where Prescott is most successful, it looks as if Moseley will have the tough day. 

Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott's NFL NextGen Stats passer rating

Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott's NFL NextGen Stats passer rating

Per NextGen Stats, Prescott is significantly better going deep left than he is toward the middle or right. He has a 126.1 passer rating when throwing 10-20 yards toward his left (league average is 86.3) and a 125.0 rating when throwing deep left (league average is 78.7 rating), compared to his 94.5 rating from 10-20 yards toward the right and 82.4 rating deep right. 

Prescott has attempted 227 passes toward the left side of the field this season, which is where Moseley will play, throwing for 1,627 yards, 85 first downs and 12 touchdowns with just one interception (Stathead). 

Jauan Jennings, Wide Receiver, #15 — San Francisco 49ers 

One of last week’s heroes, second-year wide receiver Jauan Jennings, should once again play a role in the offense. He’s a good blocker and is coming off six catches on seven targets for 94 yards, five first downs and two touchdowns. 

The 6’3 Jennings, who plays 37.9 percent of his snaps in the slot according to PlayerProfiler.com, matched up with Rams’ nickel corner Dont’e Deayon (5’9). Dallas nickel Jourdan Lewis is listed at 5’10. Jennings must use that height advantage and outmuscle the smaller Lewis. 

Lewis has missed 12.9 percent of his tackles. He also has allowed a career-high 52 completions and 686 yards according to Pro Football Reference, but has a career best three interceptions for the turnover-happy Dallas defense. 

In addition to the slot, Jennings made some plays on the right sideline, which would mean a matchup with former SEC foe and newly-minted All Pro Trevon Diggs. 

Diggs has been an interception machine (an NFL-leading 11 this season), but is susceptible to the big-play. He’s credited with allowing 907 yards in coverage and has missed 16.1 percent of his tackle attempts. 

Expect Shanahan and Garoppolo to continue their assault on the short-to-intermediate middle of the field in efforts to eventually get Diggs on a double-move with Jennings, Samuel or Brandon Aiyuk. 

Arden Key, Defensive Line, #98 — San Francisco 49ers 

Center Tyler Biadasz has not allowed a sack this year according to PFF, but has 11 penalties and the lowest grade (64.8) of the five Dallas offensive linemen. The next lowest is left guard Connor Williams (76.4 PFF grade), who has 15 penalties. 

Biadasz and Williams have combined for more penalties than San Francisco’s entire offensive line. 

In addition to pass-rushing on Biadasz and Williams, Key will get some chances on left tackle Tyron Smith. 

Smith is one of the best tackles in the NFL, but has battled knee and ankle problems and was a limited participant in practice. Can Key, Samson Ebukam and All-Pro snub Nick Bosa take advantage? 

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