Who are these guys?
The Green Bay fans are still trying to figure it out. Cowboys fans hope the Packers continue their identity crisis at least until next Monday. The Packers enter their matchup with Dallas at 4-4. A shaky, flawed 4-4 and yet, a dangerous, explosive 4-4. The Cowboys can avoid the blowup, but they must proceed with caution.
When Green Bay Has the Ball
When the Packers were 13-3 in '07, they liked to play, high-wire, spread formation football. They played a lot of three and four wideout sets, with RB Ryan Grant in the backfield with Brett Favre. They stretched secondaries with Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, Donald Lee and James Jones. They could go without a tight end or fullback much of the time because their line protected Favre well.
Two years on, the Packers are still playing down the field, but their protection has crumbled. Aaron Rodgers has already been sacked 35 times this year, leading one national pundit to dub the Packers line, the "baby swiss." They're been especially weak against the better defenses on their schedule. Mike Zimmer's Bengals bagged Rodgers six times. The Vikings sacked him eight times in their first meeting and six more times in the rematch. The lowly Bucs got him six times in their upset this past week. That's 26 sacks in four losses, numbers that probably had Wade Philips ready to call the blitzes first thing Tuesday morning.
To be fair, the Packers have suffered many injuries here. Their regular tackes, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, were not ready for the season opener. Tauscher had been released after tearing an ACL late last year but was hastily re-signed when the injuries piled up. Swingman Jason Spitz went on IR a few weeks ago.
Clifton and Tauscher both started last week but offered no clear improvement in protection. Of equal concern was the poor protection by the interior line. I saw one Bucs tackle walk RG Daryn Colledge right back to Rodgers to record a sack. The line looks even shakier this week, on the news that Tauscher is again injured. Rookie T.J. Lang will take his place at right tackle and will no doubt see lots of Demarcus Ware and lots of games by Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff when Dallas goes to a four-man line in the nickel.
Spencer has become very good at working the front half of a stunt and last week he crashed down on Eagles RT Winston Justice, knocking him off of Ratliff, who promptly looped in to sack Donovan McNabb.
Dallas can't go too blitz crazy, because the Packers are a decent running team. Grant is rotating with Ahman Green and the Packers would love to find an early rhythm with their runs. It will take some pressure off Rodgers. I say some -- six sacks per game is bad, any way you look at it.
When Dallas Has the Ball
There are five one-win teams in the NFL right now, and Green Bay has played four of them. They've supplied three of the Packers four wins, the other coming opening day against Chicago. The Packers defense slammed these weaklings, allowing just 35 points against the Bears, Rams, Browns and Lions, a tidy 8.8 points per game.
Then came Tampa. The Bucs hit the Packers for 38, raising the Packers average to a still-respectable 14.6. The problem has come against winners. Green Bay is 0-3 in two contests with the Vikings and one with the Bengals. What's worse, the seemingly stout D has allowed 99 points in those games, a not-so-tidy 33 point average.
Green Bay has struggled with power backs. Cedric Benson hammered them for 141 yards and Stephen Jackson added 117 the next week. The Packers did contain Adrian Peterson in the two Vikings contests, but left themselves open to Minnesota's passing game.
Playing eight man fronts is a dare the Packers rarely make because they don't rush the passer well -- they have just 13 sacks. Tthree players, DE Cullen Jenkins and LBs Aaron Kampman and Clay Matthews, have 9.5 of those 13. Kampman will miss the game, further weakening the Green Bay rush.
DC Dom Capers does not have many savory options. If he blitzes Tony Romo heavily, his coverage becomes vulnerable to short passes. Minnesota made several big plays on short tosses to Chester Taylor and on short crosses to Percy Harvin, who tortured the Packers safeties and nickel corners.
Dallas has the players to call a similar game. Felix Jones would welcome some short tosses in the open field. So would Sam Hurd, who scored a touchdown against Seattle by turning a short cross past Seattle's linebackers into a long romp up the sideline. Patrick Crayton hit the Eagles with a 62 yard seam route just before the half last week when he got behind their linebackers.
On the other hand, if Capers sits back, Jason Garrett will hammer Barber, Jones and Choice at his front seven repeatedly. The Packers do have good starting corners, so I don't expect lots of quick strikes up field. If the Dallas line can protect Romo, we should see a methodical, ball-control game plan.
I've harped on this matchup all week because I feel special teams could win this game. Dallas has been every effective covering kicks and has had exceptional punt return teams. Their one shortcoming has come on kickoff returns, where Joe DeCamillis has been unable to find the right blocking combination for his returner rotation of Felix Jones, Miles Austin and Kevin Ogletree.
If Joe D can settle his two-man wedges, he can demolish the Packers coverage team. They gave up 77 and 48 yard returns to Percy Harvin in the Vikings loss two weeks ago and a critical 82 yard return when they were ready for an early knockout against the Bucs.
The Packers have a big-legged kicker in Mason Crosby, but they really suffer when Crosby can't hit touchbacks. Crosby kicked four to open the Tampa game but left his fifth short and had it returned inside his team's red zone.
The Cowboys must practice bounced kickoffs and short directional kicks, especially if the weather reports call for cold conditions. Crosby began hitting bouncers and popups against the Vikings after Harvin showed his big return skills. The Vikings didn't get great returns on these changeups, but they were fielding the ball at their own 20 and 25 and therefore got field position around their 35 or 40. If the Cowboys up men can field these cleanly (and this IS something they practiced regularly in training camp, so I assume they work on it a lot) the team should get great field position after any Packers kickoff.
Dallas also has the suddenly explosive Patrick Crayton returning punts at a 16 yard average. DeCamillis may eschew returns and go after a punt or two; Tampa got an early score by blocking a Green Bay punt, which Ronde Barber returned for six. The Packers units have been ragged in all areas. Look for maximum Dallas pressure on all special teams downs.
Despite their protection problems, the Packers can score and probably will score. Nobody has held them under 21 points this year. Aaron Rodgers is a quality quarterback and he has three quality receivers in Driver, Jennings and Jones. The keys for Dallas are the same ones they took to Philadelphia: keep the big play receivers in front of you; deny Rogers the big throw; put heavy pressure on his patchwork line; protect the football when you have it, assuring Green Bay has to make long drives, and exploit the serious advantage on special teams.
If Dallas protects the football, it should win. But as we all know, who can predict turnovers? Green Bay's defense has at least one takeaway in every game this season and 18 total this year. Dallas can't lose its concentration, or it can lose the game.