Packers vs. Cowboys: Keys to the Game
The Green Bay Packers return to the site of their most recent Super Bowl victory this Sunday: Dallas, Texas and AT&T Stadium (Texas Stadium). This Packers team looks quite a bit different than the one from three years ago, the biggest difference being that Aaron Rodgers won’t be at quarterback for the Packers.
It was announced on Friday that Rodgers has been ruled out for this week’s game. Matt Flynn will get another start for the Packers.
As much success as Green Bay has had, as a franchise, over the past two decades, this is a venue that has brought a lot of pain and heartbreak. The last time the Packers beat the Cowboys in Dallas, Brett Favre was still in college. So was Emmitt Smith. It was December 24, 1989, Troy Aikman’s rookie season.
Since then, Green Bay has lost nine straight in Dallas. Favre never won in Dallas in a Packers uniform. Rodgers has only played in and appeared in one such game, in late 2007. Rodgers came in for Favre, who was hurt and played nearly the entire second half. It was Rodgers’ “coming out” party and even though the Packers didn’t win, they saw what they had in their young backup. Less than a year later, Favre was a New York Jet and Rodgers was Green Bay’s starting quarterback.
While these are vastly different teams that travel to Texas, I have to wonder how much the mystique of such a long losing streak has on a team. Just look at the Detroit Lions when it comes to playing at Lambeau Field. And that’s a divisional matchup to boot!
Somehow, and despite not winning five of their last six games, the Packers are still very much alive in the race to win the NFC North. With just three games left and a half game between themselves and the Lions and Chicago Bears, Green Bay can’t likely afford many more losses. I’m speaking purely from a mathematical standpoint there. In theory, they need to win all three from a record and a confidence point of view.
With Rodgers out, the Pack face another uphill battle to get a tough road win. Let’s look at the areas that likely factor into this week’s outcome.
Eddie Lacy’s effectiveness
Without Rodgers, the Packers are down one engine. If Lacy can’t go, they’re a virtual paper airplane. As of Friday afternoon, things were looking good for #27 and he was listed as probable on the team’s injury report. He said that he felt good after the team’s practice and expects to play.
Lacy sprained his ankle on a run late in the first half of last week’s win against the Atlanta Falcons. By late, I mean with :04 seconds left and little to no chance of anything happening on any play. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy called a run and, to the surprise of no one (including Murphy and his Law), Lacy sprained his ankle on that very play. Lacy did return to the game but was in a “rehab phase” earlier this week to nurse the injury.
McCarthy, of course, stood beside his decision. Would we expect anything else? McCarthy’s comments, according to Wes Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette: “Frankly, there’s a reason why you run the ball at the end of the half,” McCarthy said. “I’m comfortable with the call. I don’t call plays based on trying to get anybody hurt or not hurt.”
Thankfully for Packers fans and McCarthy, Lacy is a very durable and resilient back and he wants to be out there. For all of the question marks about Lacy heading into this past draft, he has proven to be the team’s best pick from the 2013 crop. They will need Lacy to play like it again this weekend.
With a more questionable passing game, any success that Lacy can have on the ground is a huge plus. Dallas ranks 28th in run defense, giving up just over 128 yards/game. I doubt Lacy reaches that total, unless he breaks a long run, but anything close to 100 yards bodes very well for the Packers.
Even more key is Lacy’s effectiveness in the red zone. Prior to Lacy’s arrival, the bane of Packers fans’ existence was the ol’ first-and-goal from the one yard line. Two Kuhn dive attempts and a failed pass later, out came the field goal unit. Lacy has seven touchdown runs this season and most of those have come inside of 10 yards. To see Green Bay converting on those opportunities is a welcome change. When the Packers get down to the goal line, they have to be just as likely and dangerous to run it in as they are to throw.
While Lacy may suit up, a sprained ankle is likely to hamper him, if only slightly. Expect to see a bit more James Starks to mix it up out there on Sunday. Still and even on less than two fully healthy legs, I’ll take my chances with Lacy and his determined spirit.
Packers Pass Defense
Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Terrance Williams, Miles Austin. Those are the Cowboys’ top receivers on the year. Running back DeMarco Murray also has 41 catches on the season.
Green Bay’s pass defense has had a down year. Safety Morgan Burnett has not lived up to his lucrative contract extension, they cut last year’s fourth round safety Jerron McMillian last week, and last week they benched their other starting safety in M.D. Jennings. They turned to recently-returned Sean Richardson to fill in and he was just cleared after missing most of this season with a major neck injury.
Issues on the back end of the pass defense isn’t a good thing against a passing attack that can get vertical. Bryant leads the team with 10 touchdowns and is exactly the type of receiver that gives the Packers fits. Speedy, tall and physical. Expect to see Packers cornerback Sam Shields blanketing Bryant, but Green Bay will need to roll help over the top.
Witten stands to do more damage as he will likely see favorable matchups most of the day. Inside linebackers A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones aren’t known for their pass coverage and we already covered the debacle at the safety position. Even in nickel, Green Bay’s defenders don’t have the size to corral Witten all day long. Not even last week’s hero, Jarrett Bush.
Witten is my single biggest key for the Packers defense. He’s good enough to get open and beat solid coverage, even in his 11th NFL season. Lst week, the Packers gave up several catches and a touchdown to another elder tight end in the league in Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez. We have seen it all year long: the one guy the Packers have to stop usually still makes his plays. Witten down the middle of the Packers defense is an image I can’t seem to get out of my mind.
Romo’s Pocket Time
As maligned as Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is, he has quietly had a good season for the Cowboys. He has just seven interception in 460 pass attempts this year. He has been sacked 30 times so it is possible to generate pressure.
Nick Perry continues to get back from his broken foot injury and hopefully he can make more of an impact from the left side. Clay Matthews could use a big game to showcase his healed broken thumb. However the Packers generate pressure, they need to do it all day long. Giving Romo time in the pocket will result in the Cowboys racking up a lot of yardage and points.
We keep waiting for the Green Bay defense to return to its early-season form but at this point, I don’t see it happening. This is an average bunch who usually need their best effort each week in order to help the team win. Since Rodgers went down, they have needed to be near perfect and have been anything but.
Whether you’re of the belief that it’s defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ scheme or that the players are not up to par, the fact remains that the Packers have their hands full this week. I am not one to suggest that a team abandon their overall strategy just to try something new. My hope is more that Green Bay has studied what other teams who have had success against Dallas, have done. How did they get to Romo and how many of those interceptions came under pressure?
None of us would mind seeing “bad Romo” this week, but the way he has been playing and especially at home, that likelihood is much lower. Earlier this season inside linebackers A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones had more success in getting to the passer. It could end up being the guys in the middle who stand out, if they are able to break through. Hawk has finished better and been hitting harder this season but over the past month, has been quiet. I’m trying to jinx him out of his shell with that statement.
Flynn’s Pocket Time
Earlier this week, Flynn admitted that many of the sacks he has taken were his fault. Not entirely, though. Those 300+ pound guys up front have a job to do and they’re not always getting it done. But Flynn has spent too much time standing still in the pocket.
This was something Rodgers struggled with early in his career and still does to this day. I’m not sure if it’s the system, coaching, or coincidence but Packers signal callers need to move around and get rid of the ball. With a makeshift offensive line, that has not always been as easy at it sounds. But the Packers should have all five of their starters healthy and ready up front this week.
Just a few days ago, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones talked about defensive end DeMarcus Ware and his declined production this season. In short, Jones said he didn’t understand why Ware, who should be in the prime of his career, isn’t more effective. Ware issued a challenge to his critics, asking them to see if they can block him. Expect Ware to come into this week looking to prove something. He knows that the Packers are under manned and like many other recent opponents, he is looking to capitalize on the mismatch.
The quick pass is key this week. The Cowboys know it’s coming and the Packers have to convert anyway. Hopefully Flynn has continued to get in better sync with his receivers in Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Jarrett Boykin. The more Flynn has to “create”, the better the chances that something bad can happen with the ball, to the offense and even worse, to him.
Packers Health Advantage?
How often have we been able to say this during this season? Some of you may already disagree by virtue of Rodgers’ absence alone but bedsides Rodgers, only defensive end C.J. Wilson has been ruled out for this week.
Dallas will be without starting linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter. Cornerback Morris Claiborne is questionable with a hamstring injury and is reportedly a stretch to play.
That gives the Packers a bit more of a chance, but with those Cowboys injuries being on the defensive side of the ball, it’s up to a Packers offense without Rodgers and receiver Randall Cobb to outscore the home team. If this game turns into a shootout, it’s automatically advantage Cowboys and likely a long day for the Pack.
Last week, offensive lineman Marshall Newhouse was out due to an illness and we saw some Derek Sherrod. With several guys dinged up, now is the time to see what the Packers have in guys like Sherrod, Richardson, Jerel Worthy and possibly even J.C. Tretter, if he gets on the active game day roster.
If the Packers can earn a win over Dallas and the Baltimore Ravens can find a way to get a win in Detroit, the Packers can win the NFC North by merely winning their last two games. It’s a bit early to talk about that “what if” with this Dallas game anything but a sure win for Green Bay, but those are the facts. It’s incredible to be talking about a division title and possible home playoff game after what these past six weeks have been!
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on "AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason at: Jason Perone
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