Cowboys vs Packers: This Sunday, the Dak Prescott-led Dallas Cowboys will square off with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers for the third time in less than a year.
The Cowboys surprisingly went into Lambeau Field and beat the Pack by two touchdowns last October, winning their fifth consecutive game in a streak that would eventually reach 11 before being snapped by the Giants. Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott dominated that contest, with the rookie quarterback completing 18 of 27 passes for 247 yards and three touchdowns, and the league’s eventual leading rusher ripping off 157 yards on 28 carries.
The rematch once again saw Prescott and Elliott put up big numbers (24 of 38, 302 yards, three touchdowns and an interception; 22 carries for 125 yards), but the Dallas defense dug their star rookies a huge hole they had to dig out of at the start of the game, and then collapsed at the end of it after Prescott led the second of two game-tying drives in the final minutes. After holding the Packers to just 16 points in the first matchup, the Cowboys allowed Rodgers to hang 34 on them in the playoffs, and because they did, Green Bay advanced to the NFC title game.
Those 16 points they allowed in the first contest are a key number: only three times in Rodgers’ career has his team been held to fewer than 20 points by a Rod Marinelli-coached defense. The Packers are 1-2 in those games and 12-0 against Marinelli-coached squads otherwise.
Despite the fact that Marinelli has coached some incredible defenses over the years (particularly in Chicago), he has largely not been able to solve the Rodgers puzzle. In one game less than the equivalent of a full season against Marinelli defenses, Rodgers has thrown for 4,062 yards, 29 touchdowns, and eight interceptions, and has a 13-2 record. His teams have averaged 25.3 points per game against squads that cumulatively yielded an average of 19.8 per game to non-Rodgers opponents.
Cowboys vs Packers: The thing that has defined these subpar performances against Rodgers has been a lack of pressure. Marinelli defenses have sacked, hit, or hurried Rodgers on 25 percent of his drop-backs during their 15 matchups, while he was pressured on 31 percent of his drop-backs in all other games. Rodgers, like every other quarterback in the NFL, throws better from a clean pocket than a muddied one, so not being able to get pressure on him is a big issue.
The Marinelli Cowboys have been especially bad at getting into Rodgers’ face, pressuring him on only 23.2 percent of his drop-backs in four matchups. Rodgers has beaten them in three out of four games and thrown nine touchdowns against only two picks.
The Cowboys will surely have to get more pressure on him this Sunday if they want to hold up defensively. Luckily for them, there may not be an edge player in the league playing better than DeMarcus Lawrence right now. Lawrence has a league-high 7.5 sacks in four games, and his 30 pressures are seven more than the next closest player. Lawrence is straight up dominating every right tackle that crosses his path, and Bryan Bulaga, who has been limited in practice this week with his high ankle sprain, should have his hands full all afternoon if he plays.
Cowboys vs Packers: The issue for the Cowboys, especially in their two losses, has been that nobody other than Lawrence has been able to consistently affect the quarterback. While Lawrence has 30 pressures, Maliek Collins is the next-closest player on the roster, with nine. Benson Mayowa and Tyrone Crawford have seven each, and nobody else has more than four. The return of David Irving should help the Cowboys add a dose of variety to their rush because, like Crawford, he is capable of beating players off the edge or on the interior, but they will also need players like Collins, Mayowa, Damontre Moore, first-round pick Taco Charlton, and Stephen Paea to chip in. Green Bay’s line has been banged up all year, and even if Bulaga and David Bakhtiari are on the field together or the first time this season, it’s difficult to imagine that line being in full rhythm right away, so there is an opportunity for this defensive front to get to the quarterback for once.
If they can’t (and the safe bet is usually on the Packers figuring out a way to keep Rodgers clean against Dallas), the crux of the matchup shifts to the back end. We don’t yet know whether or not Davante Adams will play, but whether it’s him or Allison playing opposite Jordy Nelson, Green Bay’s outside receivers seem likely to match up with second-year man Anthony Brown and rookie Jourdan Lewis. It’s hard to tell exactly how the Cowboys will line up on the outside because they haven’t had all of their corners healthy at the same time yet; Nolan Carroll and Chidobe Awuzie are expected to return from injury this week, and with Brown banged up, they may see more time as well.
Cowboys vs Packers: Brown has been targeted more than any other Dallas corner this season because he’s the only one that’s managed to remain healthy, but he also has not matched his level of play from the tail end of last season. Lewis looked lost in Week 2 against the Broncos, but he’s been out of his mind the last two weeks against the Cardinals and Rams. He looks like an absolute steal in the third round of the draft. Awuzie is a player the Cowboys want to move all over the formation, and he could see matchups with all of Green Bay’s wideouts.
The Cowboys have done a good job against Nelson over the last few matchups, but Green Bay has largely come away with victories anyway. They seem likely to tilt coverage toward him yet again, which could open things up underneath.
The battle in the slot will largely be waged between Randall Cobb and Orlando Scandrick, as it has been in the last several matchups between these teams, but rookie safety Xavier Woods has been bumping down inside as well. Woods is a ballhawk and a monster hitter, and will move all over the formation to guard Cobb, Martellus Bennett, and any other tight end that goes out on a route. The same goes for Awuzie if he plays, and third-year free safety Byron Jones as well.
The Packers receivers (except for Allison) have a massive experience edge over the Dallas defensive backs, but experience doesn’t always necessarily win out. The Dallas corners have the athleticism and instincts to stick to Nelson, Cobb, and Bennett for a while, but if the front seven can’t get pressure and/or if Rodgers escapes from the pocket, they could be in for a long day of having to chase receivers around for too much time, and those receivers will spring open. They know the scramble drill too well at this point.
Cowboys vs Packers: In the end, the matchup of the Dallas defense and the Green Bay offense will likely come down to Rodgers’ ability to freelance if and when the play breaks down. It almost always does. For the most part, he has been able to keep plays alive and beat the Cowboys (and other Rod Marinelli defenses) with both his arm and his legs. For Dallas to come away with a win, they’ll have to get pressure and keep contain at the same time, and they’ll also have to hope their young secondary is up to the task of locking horns with Rodgers’ dangerous weapons.