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Dallas Cowboys @ Green Bay Packers: Keys To The Game

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What Dallas needs to accomplish to win the divisional round matchup in Green Bay.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

I undercooked chicken last night. No energy for witty intros. Straight to the keys.

When Dallas Has the Ball:

There's been a lot made about how Dallas matches up well against Green Bay because of our running game. And while that's true, it's not true in the sense that most people believe it to be. A strong running game has not led to Dallas victories; as the folk over at Football Outsiders point out, three of our four losses came in a game where we averaged five yards a carry and had a running success rate over 55 percent. Running the ball well doesn't equal winning, but it does force the defense to respect the run, opening up an already good passing game. That being said, there are a few things to look for when Dallas is running the ball:

Go Left: According to Adjusted Line Yardage Dallas runs the ball most effectively off the right tackle (although I'm not sure of the splits in games when Doug Free is replaced by Jeremy Parnell). Going off the right tackle Dallas has an Adjusted Line Yardage of 4.85,the third best mark in the league. However they struggled (relatively) going off right end, with an adjusted line yardage of 4.15, good for 12th in the league.

Despite the success running off right tackle Bill Barnwell notes that Dallas predominately runs to the left, with runs to that side accounting for 36% of Dallas carries. The reason is clear; Dallas runs for an ALY of 4.57 going off the left tackle, good for third in the league, and an ALY of 4.35 going off right end, good for sixth in the league.

Which is exactly what the Packers don't want. Again from Barnwell:

Teams ran toward its right side (the left side of the offense) at a league-average frequency, but fared well in the process. The Packers’ defensive front was 28th in Adjusted Line Yards allowed to left end and 30th on runs at left tackle. It got beaten up. Otherwise, the Packers ranked between 16th and 19th in runs to the rest of the field, so it wasn’t just a product of a bad defense; there’s something legitimate to worry about when Dallas runs DeMarco Murray to the left on Sunday.

Dirty Runs: All year long we've heard Jason Garrett talk about the need for dirty runs, those three to five yard pickups that don't make the highlights but that do make up successful drives. Against Green Bay we're going to need those dirty runs. While DeMarco Murray leads the league in runs over 15 yards (and it's not even close, Murray has 27 such runs, the next closest back is Justin Forsett with 18), Green Bay leads the league in preventing long runs. They only allowed four 20+ runs all year long, and did not give up a single run over 30 yards. Don't expect a lot of big runs in this game.

There is one wrinkle there though that bears mentioning. Last week Dallas was unable to get its offensive linemen "on the move" something they love to do, because of Detroit's front four. Green Bay's defensive line is nowhere near the caliber of Detroit's; I expect to see Dallas with a lot of pulling and trap blocking to see if they can get their offensive line out into the second level.

Move Dez Bryant: Green Bay has two primary struggles in pass coverage; passes to number one receivers and covering the left side of the field. The reason for both these issues seems to be one man; Travon Williams. Williams has been targeted more, and has given up more receptions, more touchdowns, more yards and more yards after catch than any other Packers cornerback. Green Bay doesn't move their corners based on matchups very often, Travon Williams is the left cornerback, hence the problems covering the left side of the field. Dallas should maximize this matchup whenever possible.

Witten: I expect Witten to have a monster game. First we'll probably see him a ton as Dallas will try to use two tight ends to keep Green Bay in their base formation per the mothership. More importantly however, Witten will help Dallas overcome something that Green Bay loves to do, which is send the corner blitz. According to FO, Green Bay blitzed a defensive back on 12.6% of its plays, and no quarterback saw the corner blitz more than Tony Romo this year.

When a defense blitzes its corner they usually have to shoot a linebacker outside to cover that zone, leaving a hole in the middle of the defense. While Dallas has struggled some against corner blitzes (Romo's net yards/pass drops a full yard when facing a corner blitz), there will be opportunities for Jason Witten.

There is another reason I expect Witten to have a big game. While Green Bay has gotten much better at covering TE's outside since moving Clay Mathews to inside linebacker, they have actually gotten worse protecting the short middle of the field, a place where Witten excels.

Packers Defense vs. TE/RB, 2014
Outside Passes Middle of the Field
DVOA Catch Rate Yd/Pass DVOA Catch Rate Yd/Pass
vs. TE, Weeks 1-9 -7.7% 58% 7.2 73.9% 100% 10.6
vs. TE, Weeks 10-17 -68.5% 45% 4.4 90.8% 81% 12.6
vs. RB, Weeks 1-9 33.4% 74% 6.4 -52.2% 67% 5.6
vs. RB, Weeks 10-17 -0.3% 67% 6.5 -35.5% 50% 4.6

When Dallas is forced into three wide, I expect Beasley to have that same advantage in the middle of the field; look for a lot of crossing routes this game, especially on third and short.

When Green Bay Has the Ball:

Play Coverage: I know this goes against what most of us want to hear but it's the absolute truth; the best way to beat Aaron Rodgers is to play coverage, not try and get pressure. Rush four, drop seven back. Yes, if you can pressure Rodgers that's great, but it's like trying to kill the king; you'd better not miss.

Let's look at some stats. Green Bay has only allowed pressure on 20% of pass plays, the fourth best mark on the season. But in three of the games they've lost they only allowed pressure on 15% of their pass plays! Aaron Rodgers is just too good against the pressure in general and the blitz in particular.

Here are the stats from PFF regarding QB’s under pressure (these are stats not grades!):

Comp%
Romo….56.4%
Rodgers….45.7%

TD%
Romo….5.2 (7 touchdowns in 135 pressured dropbacks)
Rodgers….5.9 (9 touchdowns in 153 pressured dropbacks)

Int%
Romo…3.7 (5 interceptions in 135 pressured dropbacks)
Rodgers…0.7 (1 interception in 153 pressured dropbacks)

Sack%
Romo…22.2%
Rodgers 17.6%

Now those aren’t necessarily blitz plays, but all plays under pressure. Here are the numbers specifically when blitzed. Note that blitzing doesn’t always equal pressure.

Completion %
Romo….66.2%
Rodgers….62.3%

TD%
Romo….11.7 (136 attempts when blitzed, 16 touchdowns)
Rodgers…..11.4 (114 attempts when blitzed, 11 touchdowns)

Int%
Romo….3.7 (136 attempts, 5 interceptions)
Rodgers….0.9 (114 attempts, 1 interceptions)

Sack%
Romo….11.7 (136 dropbacks 16 sacks)
Rodgers….4.3 (114 dropbacks, 5 sacks)

When you pressure Rodgers you might cause some incompletions. But you're not going to pressure him into a turnover, and you increase your chances of a big play. The way to beat Green Bay is to slow the game down; make them drive the length of the field.

Cover 2: Last week I talked about avoiding Cover 2 because it left the middle of the field open, which was the strength of Detroit's passing game. This week I think we should see a lot more cover two coverage. Green Bay's strengths are getting yards after the catch; they want to get Nelson or Cobb cutting across the field with a defender trailing them in coverage. Making them run into coverage, and above all else keeping a player over the top is going to be essential. Don't fret giving up receptions, that's going to happen. Fret giving up YAC.

Think of Green Bay's offense as a modified West Coast offense. They love to stretch defenses horizontally; get their playmakers one on one, then head upfield. Playing man, especially on short routes, is exactly what Green Bay wants.

Their is another reason to play Cover two. I mentioned that Green Bay is a modified west coast offense; they will definitely take shots down the field, and Aaron Rodgers throws one of the best back shoulder throws in football. In the short to medium routes he looks primarily to the middle of the field. But when going deep Rodgers throws most often to the sideline. He's thrown 57 passes that have traveled more than 20 yards in the air this year; 39 of those passes have gone to one of the sidelines. Playing cover two will take away the deep out and sideline go route that Rodgers loves.

Make Eddie Lacy Beat You: Dallas has to play the pass and not be afraid if Lacy starts gashing them for yards. This is simple mathematics. Eddie Lacy averages 4.6 yards per carry, Aaron Rodgers averages 8.4 yards per attempt. More importantly, Aaron Rodgers has a completion percentage of about 65%, where Lacy only has a success rate of 48%

What is success rate you ask? It's a nifty stat tracked by Football Outsiders. You can find the whole story here, but here's the short version:

  • In general, a play counts as a "hit" if it gains 40% of yards on first down, 60% of yards on second down, and 100% of yards on third down.

  • If the team is behind by more than a touchdown in the fourth quarter, the benchmarks switch to 50%/65%/100%.

  • If the team is ahead by any amount in the fourth quarter, the benchmarks switch to 30%/50%/100%.

In other words Eddy Lacy will only have a "successful" run, about 48% of the time. Dallas must do whatever it can to take the game out of Aaron Rodgers hand's and put it into Eddy Lacy's.

Last But Not Least:

The most important thing that Dallas can do in this game is to keep it close. Tony Romo talked about that at length after the Lions game, and that same mindset should be in play here. We don't need hero ball. Stay within a score or two in the fourth quarter and Dallas will be in good shape. There are two main reasons for this:

Team 1st Half DVOA Rank 2nd Half DVOA Rank Late/CloseDVOA Rank
DAL OFF 21.1% 3 11.8% 6 21.1% 7
GB DEF -8.6% 9 6.5% 24 5.3% 24

Team 1st Half DVOA Rank 2nd Half DVOA Rank Late/Close DVOA Rank
GB OFF 38.5% 1 6.7% 10 12.0% 8
DAL DEF 8.4% 28 0.9% 15 -5.5% 10

As the game progresses, Green Bay gets worse, both offensively and defensively. On the other hand our offense stays virtually identical, while our defense becomes increasingly better. If Dallas keeps this game close going into the fourth quarter, we have a great chance of winning.

Well there you go fellow BtBer's. Those are my thoughts on the keys to the game. What do you think? Am I off on anything or miss something? I'd love to hear your thoughts so please discuss below!