When these two teams met in October, It was the Cowboys’ second to none ground attack (Ezekiel Elliott ran for 157 yards) – Dak Prescott’s proficient passing (threw for 247 yards and three touchdown passes) – and defense that got the best of what was at the time (a dysfunctional Packers’ offense) by coming away with four takeaways in the Cowboys’ 30-16 win at historic Lambeau Field. Dysfunction has turned over to rhythm and cohesion with Aaron Rodgers (the games best improviser and deadliest passer) stifling defenses in route to the Packers’ seven-game win streak – including last week’s 38-13 thumping win over the Giants in the Wild Card round.
With that in mind, it’s time to delve into the five keys of this intriguing divisional round matchup that has the makeup for an exciting extravaganza at AT&T Stadium.
1: Dime package is becoming Marinelli’s go to method
Look for Cowboys’ DC Rod Marinelli’s to employ what’s been working masterfully – the 3-2-6 dime package. Marinelli utilized this look to thwart Rodgers in their Week 6 matchup by dropping seven to eight guys back with man coverage (obstructing Rodgers’ throwing lanes to keep him out of sync). The kicker here is…defensive coordinators evade blitzing against Rodgers due to the fact that he can escape a swarm of rushers to extend the play with his exceptional mobility. The more defenders Marinelli employs in coverage – the merrier the chances for the Cowboys’ defense to neutralize the Packers’ high-octane aerial attack.
2: The return of Mo
Morris Claiborne returns from a groin injury he suffered against the Eagles in Week 8. With Claiborne back to team up with his compadres Brandon Carr, Anthony Brown and Orlando Scandrick to man Rodgers’s outlets – the Cowboys’ secondary will be at full strength with a wealth of depth. The Packers will be without Rodgers’ bread and butter target Jordy Nelson (ribs), opening up the door for Geronimo Allison and Jeff Janis (two receivers that aren’t nuanced route runners but can high point and make contested catches).
Containing DaVante Adams (a physical receiver Rodgers can get the ball to on fades and slants like he infamously has with Nelson) and Randall Cobb (a nifty man beater) will be paramount, but pending on if Packers’ HC Mike McCarthy plans to utilize them frequently in the slot – Orlando Scandrick or Anthony Brown may see a good amount of matchups against Rodgers’ best receivers that could decipher how the Cowboys’ secondary fares. The better than advertised matchup will be Cowboys’ safety Byron Jones (one of the best in the league at manning tight ends) on Packers’ TE Jared Cook (who can run the seams and work outside the numbers). With Cook’s athleticism and size used on the boundary, Nelson and Adams have been given the luxury to matchup against nickel DBs in the slot to their advantage, but without Nelson, Adams, Allison and Janis may see more snaps on the perimeter against Claiborne or Carr.
Mailbag: What to expect this weekend
Preview:: How will this exciting weekend play out?
Awards:: cover32’s end-of-season awards
3: Will the Packers turn to the ground game?
Without Eddie Lacy (ankle), the Packers have lost their violent-bruising runner to put exhausting physical tolls on defenders and have them commit up to crowd the box. Converted receiver Ty Montgomery (a versatile weapon) and Christine Michael (a non-patient but aggressive style of runner) has given the Packers some semblance of a running game. McCarthy has used the multifaceted Montgomery out of the backfield on swing passes and to tote the rock when the Packers are in their spread three-receiver sets.
This keeps defenses guessing – but I’m wondering if McCarthy elects to run the ball more, using fullback Aaron Ripkowski (who has the aptitude to lead block and create running lanes) and some 7 man O-lines (12 personnel two tight end sets) with Michael and Montgomery to get the Cowboys’ defense to cheat up and respect the run. In spite of the fact that Rodgers doesn’t necessarily need the ground game to have a stellar performance – an effective game on the ground will keep Rodgers in high percentage passing downs and amplify their opportunities of getting the play-action pass going to potentially strike a fundamentally sound Cowboys’ secondary over the top. This was an effective tactic when Lacy was their healthy featured runner.
4: Controlling the interior and why Beasley should get lots of singled up looks
Led by three All-Pro O-lineman (LT Tyron Smith, Center Travis Frederick, G Zack Martin), the Cowboys’ maulers are deservedly marveled for their masterful blocking. Packers’ 322-pound nose tackle Letroy Guion and 310-pound defensive tackle Mike Daniels are the inside trenches of Packers’ DC Dom Capers’ unit that will be imperative for the Packers on trying to mitigate Elliott from gashing them. Without successful penetration from Guion and Daniels, the Cowboys’ road graders will be able to execute their superb zone blocking to create cutback lanes for Elliott to get the second level.
Does Capers trust his subpar inside linebackers Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez to hunt down the prodigious Elliott without extra help to stack the box or does he opt to keep his safeties deep with 2 man looks? The Packers don’t possess a lockdown corner trustworthy of manning up against a boundary threat receiver like Dez Bryant. Second-year corner Ladarius Gunter, who has the biggest frame, should be matched up on Bryant with safety help while Damarious Randall will likely be on Terrance Williams on the opposite side. With odds favoring Bryant and tight end Jason Witten (ace option route runner) to be doubled – look for Cole Beasley to be singled up with Packers’ nickel corner Micah Hyde. Hyde is competent inside, but Beasley’s quickness breaking in and out of his routes will be a tough task for Hyde on defending Prescott’s fabulous underneath slot threat.
5: Containing Rodgers from beating you with his legs
Ditching play structures in sandlot mode isn’t the only factor helping Rodgers mask his receivers’ inconsistencies on getting separation – the Packers’ offensive line’s adroit pass protection, also buys the two-time league MVP lots of duration for his outlets to get free from defenders. Whether Marinelli employs three-man or four-man rushes – containing Rodgers with a spy (probably with a linebacker shadowing him) could be part of the mix along with exclusively having his down-lineman stunt and twist – striving to force Rodgers to make contested throws and keep him at bay to limit Mr. Discount Double Check himself from scrambling to move the chains.
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