Week 6 brings the second of four NFC North matchups as the Cowboys travel to Lambeau Field to face the Packers. Let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of one of the better offenses in the league.
Aaron Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in the league, maybe even the best, plain and simple. He is a former Super Bowl MVP, 2-time NFL MVP, 2-time First Team All-Pro and he is likely a future first ballot Hall of Famer. He has one of the strongest arms in the league, one of the quickest releases, he’s deadly accurate, makes fantastic decisions, and has a masterful handle on the Packers offense. His greatest attribute may be his pocket presence as he instinctively feels pressure, moves subtly into open space, and finds receivers for big gains. Rodgers is at his most dangerous when he is extending plays with his legs, although even if you are able to get hits on him he has shown that he has a strong enough arm to still get the ball downfield while getting hit.
He doesn’t make many mistakes as he has thrown eight or less interceptions every year since the 2011 season, and has over 170 touchdowns to just 36 interceptions over that span. He has struggled a bit to start the season with a career low 56.1% completion percentage and he has not been his normal hyper-efficient self, but he is still the best quarterback the Cowboys will face during the regular season and they will clearly have their work cut out for them in stopping him.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
Despite the outstanding ability of their quarterback the Packers passing game has struggled somewhat since 2015. The passing game looked nearly unstoppable from 2009 to 2014, although they dropped off last year after Jordy Nelson tore his ACL in the 2015 preseason. Nelson is clearly the top Packers receiver, with good size (6-3, 217), speed, great hands, and route running. Before missing last season he had over 2,800 yards and 21 touchdowns in the previous two seasons. He is Rodgers’ top target and without Nelson he was not nearly as effective, although he still managed 31 touchdowns to just eight interceptions and nearly made the NFC Championship game. Even though Nelson still doesn’t seem fully 100%, he still leads the team in touchdowns and receiving yards, and he will certainly be the focus of the Cowboys secondary.
Aside from Nelson the Packers don’t have any other receivers who are true game-breaking threats on the outside, nor do they have any receivers who are as in tune with what Rodgers is thinking as Nelson is, and able to adjust their routes on the fly. Randall Cobb is a player whose reputation precedes his production as he has only topped 1,000 yards receiving in a season once. He is a definite threat out of the slot and in the middle of the field, but he isn’t an outside threat who will command safety help over the top as he generally won’t be able to take the top off a defense. Cobb had a big game last week against the Giants but up until then he had struggled over the first few games of the season.
The Packers third receiver is Davante Adams, who will usually line up on the outside, allowing Cobb to lineup in the slot. Great things were expected of Adams after an impressive rookie season, although he hasn’t seemed to improve much since then. He can still hurt you, especially with a quarterback as good as Rodgers throwing him the ball, but he is only marginal as far as starting wide receivers go.
With established veteran Jared Cook set to miss the next month or so with a high ankle sprain the Packers will start 2014 third-round pick Richard Rodgers at tight end, who somewhat broke out last year with 510 yards and eight touchdowns. He has good size and athleticism, and while he isn’t an elite tight end he can’t be forgotten as he has his quarterback’s trust and can make plays downfield (see: 2015 Hail Mary vs. Detroit).
Starting running back Eddie Lacy is quite the curious case. He started his career off with back-to-back 1,000+ yard seasons and 24 total touchdowns; he plateaued last season, gaining only 758 yards in 2015, although he has rebounded to start 2016 with an impressive 5.5 YPC over the first four games. He is a big, powerful runner, but often times he lacks the agility and quickness to really get going if he is stopped before he can build up a head of steam. He has struggled with his weight going back to last year, and despite the early season success it does not seem the Packers fully trust him as he only averages about 14 carries a game.
Lacy suffered an ankle injury against the Giants but from reading the tea leaves it seems likely that he will play Sunday. The Packers can’t afford to lose Lacy as there isn’t much behind him; backup James Starks has only seven more rush attempts than Aaron Rodgers so far, and it looks likely that Starks will miss Sunday’s game. The Packers will sometimes line up Randall Cobb in the backfield to attempt to create mismatches in the passing game, although they will hand the ball off to him on occasion.
Unless the Packers build a good sized lead don’t expect to see too many running plays out of them as they only average 26 rushes per game, compared to nearly 35 pass attempts, and if you take away the Rodgers scrambles they only average about 22 rushes per game.
While the Packers don’t start a single lineman who has made a Pro Bowl or All-Pro team, this is still one of the better lines in the league. Amazingly, each of the starters have never played for another team except the Packers, which is key in understanding why they have become so good. There are also no starters who were highly touted prospects either, aside from 2010 first-round pick Bryan Bulaga at right tackle. Left tackle David Bakhtiari, center J.C. Tretter, and right guard T.J. Lang were all drafted in the fourth round between 2009 and 2013, while left guard Lane Taylor went undrafted. With that said, this is a group that has had years to build chemistry and learn exactly what they need to do in order for the offense to function around Rodgers.
Tretter and Taylor are potential weak spots on the line as they only have a combined 13 career starts between them, although Tretter in particular has been impressive since replacing injured starter Corey Linsley late last season. Bakhtiari is probably the Packers best lineman as he has quietly developed into one of the better left tackles in the league over the last few years, while Bulaga and Lang are solid, if unspectacular long-time starters.
While this is an excellent pass-blocking unit, they do struggle in the run game at times and some would consider them a bit of a finesse group.
Where The Cowboys Can Take Advantage:
- An inconsistent overall running game could force the Packers into becoming one-dimensional
- If the Cowboys secondary is able to contain Jordy Nelson they should be able to keep the rest of the receivers and tight ends under control
What The Cowboys Must Fear:
- Aaron Rodgers; even without a credible running game or great receivers he can carve up any defense at any time
- Allowing Jordy Nelson to get loose, which would open things up for the other Packers receivers
- Eddie Lacy gaining momentum and a head of steam. Usually if he is kept under wraps early the Packers will go away from the run and he will never get going, if he gets momentum early he could slowly wear down the defense