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The San Francisco 49ers secured their return to the postseason last week without arguably the elite player on an offense stacked with weapons, yet they will not have such an obstacle as their attack faces perhaps its biggest test of the 2021 campaign in the Wild Card round.
Trent Williams, named a first-team All-Pro for the first time in a career that could well see him enshrined in Canton, Ohio, was an extremely animated spectator in the 49ers’ Week 18 comeback win over the Los Angeles Rams, which punched their ticket to the playoffs and a road game with the Dallas Cowboys.
An elbow injury kept him on the sideline as the 49ers improbably fought back from a 17-point deficit to claim a 27-24 overtime victory, San Francisco taking over the game physically in the trenches even with 2020 fifth-round pick Colton McKivitz—whom the Niners had been developing to play at guard—seeing his first action of the season in Williams’ place back at his collegiate position of left tackle.
McKivitz held up well in pass protection given the circumstances and was able to move defenders off the ball in the running game. However, understandably given the quality of the opposition, McKivitz suffered from some inconsistencies in protection, allowing Von Miller to blow by him for a sack in the fourth quarter.
San Francisco will again be in a sudden death scenario in Dallas on Sunday, and the 49ers can ill-afford to have a weak link on the edge against a Cowboys defense revitalized under Dan Quinn thanks largely to the emergence of Defensive Rookie of the Year frontrunner Micah Parsons.
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Thankfully, the Niners will have Williams back for their first postseason game since the Super Bowl LIV defeat to the Kansas City Chiefs after he was not listed with a designation on Friday’s injury report, and tight end George Kittle this week made a point of emphasizing the nine-time Pro Bowler’s importance to their cause.
“He’s the best football player I’ve ever played with,” Kittle said, per 49ers Webzone. “Huge Trent Williams fan. I love playing with him. I love blocking with him. He makes my life a lot easier. He makes everyone’s life a lot easier.
“You can ask him to block two guys, and he’ll do it with ease. Trent a little bit hurt is still better than, I think, almost everybody in the NFL, regardless of the position. So having him back is a huge impact for us and will allow us to do a lot more things in the run and pass game.”
With Dallas boasting further talented pass rushers beyond Parsons in the form of Randy Gregory and Demarcus Lawrence, the Niners need to be able to rely on Williams to lock down Jimmy Garoppolo’s blindside as he has done throughout 2021, thus enabling San Francisco to focus chip help on the right side of the line and decrease the likelihood of the Cowboys creating pressure that can lead to the kind of turnovers on which their defense has thrived.
No team forced more takeaways than the 34 the Cowboys generated in the regular season, and San Francisco will limit Dallas’ chances to create turnovers if they can control the game with a successful rushing attack.
Williams is perhaps the biggest asset the San Francisco run game has at its disposal, his monstrous blend of size and athleticism allowing him to excel playing in a scheme built primarily around zone-blocking but infused with an increasing number of gap and power runs.
The numbers suggest the Niners should succeed on the ground against Dallas. The Cowboys, per ESPN, allow 6.1 yards per carry to runs when the opponent uses motion. San Francisco uses motion on 46 percent of their designed runs, the highest ratio in the NFL.
Williams, who received Pro Football Focus‘ highest ever single-season grade for any player (98.2) for his performance in the regular season and led the NFL with a run-blocking grade of 98.5, can ensure San Francisco presses home that mismatch and help the 49ers dominate time of possession while providing the protection to prevent Garoppolo from having to play behind the chains and coming under too much fire from Dallas’ loaded pass rush.
The Niners survived without Williams last week but, in this matchup of two teams who each believe they have a legitimate shot to emerge from the playoffs as the NFC’s elite, his return could well be a decisive factor.