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 a defense that has started the season off hot despite several injuries.
Defensive Line and Linebackers
Normally I don’t group these two positions together but the Packers defensive coordinator, Dom Capers, really mixes things up formation-wise with his linemen and linebackers. Often times they will have a “lineman” standing up, while a “linebacker” will have his hand on the ground, so in an effort to simplify, I will just lump them all together for now.
Mike Daniels is the headliner on the line, he is undersized at only 6-0, but at 310 he plays with a low center of gravity, great leverage and explosiveness. He is one of the more underrated interior pass-rushers in the league and to be honest he is probably a player that Rod Marinelli would love to have as he fits the mold of the undersized, yet explosive 3-technique tackle. Daniels has had at least four sacks over each of the last three seasons and will be a big challenge for the interior of the Cowboys offensive line. Letroy Guion and Datone Jones both missed time early in the year but both returned against the Giants. Guion is more of your traditional run-stuffing defensive tackle who is difficult to move against the run but doesn’t provide much as a pass-rusher. Datone Jones is much more versatile, able to line up with his hand in the dirt or standing up. It’s difficult to call anyone aside from Daniels a “starter” as the Packers mix and match their formations so often, but these are the primary three linemen who you will see on Sunday. Rookie Kenny Clark will rotate in at times, and he is primarily a run-stuffer who did a nice job filling in for Guion when he was injured.
The linebacker group is led by versatile six-time Pro Bowler Clay Matthews, who is now playing his more natural position at outside linebacker after playing inside last season. Despite posting only 6.5 sacks last season Matthews is still an excellent pass-rusher who must be accounted for now that he is back outside. He has posted double digit sacks four times in his career, including 11 in 2014. The other big name in the linebacker unit is 15-year veteran, nine-time Pro Bowler, three-time first-team All-Pro, and likely future Hall of Famer Julius Peppers. At this point in his career Peppers is primarily a pass-rush specialist who will generally play with his hand down, but he seemingly hasn’t declined much, posting 10.5 sacks last season.
Less heralded veteran Nick Perry isn’t as well-known as Matthews or Peppers but he is having something a breakout season with 4.5 sacks over the first four games despite never posting more than four sacks in a season over his first four seasons. Perry has been excellent both against the run and the pass this year as he has finally capitalized on the potential that made him a first-round pick in 2012. The Packers will move Matthews, Peppers, and Perry all over the formation as Capers loves to bring creative blitzes from all angles. Sometimes they will have their hand in the dirt, other times they’ll stand up and move around the formation, and it will be important for the Cowboys line to communicate on the road to ensure that they are on the same page as far as the protections.
The most traditional linebackers on the Packers roster are 2015 fourth-round pick Jake Ryan and 2015 undrafted free agent Joe Thomas. After playing well as a rookie Ryan has grown into a starting role in 2016 and generally stays on the field for all three downs. Thomas has also taken on an expanded role this year and performed well after not playing much as a rookie.
Two rookies, 2016 third-round pick Kyler Fackrell and fourth-round pick Blake Martinez have played well after being pressed into early playing time with the injuries along the front seven. Martinez is more of a traditional linebacker while Fackrell is in the mold of Perry in that he is a pass-rusher who can stand up or put his hand on the ground. Fackrell will have to be accounted for as he already has two sacks in his first four career games.
The fact that the Packers are currently ranked first in rushing yards allowed by a wide margin despite so many injuries along the defensive line and linebacker group is amazing, although part of it is that each of their first four opponents are among the worst rushing teams in the league.
This unit is led by veteran Sam Shields at cornerback, who, despite 18 career interceptions, has only seen one Pro Bowl. Shields plays sticky coverage and has great ball skills, able to track the ball in the air and high point it for the interception. With that said Shields has not played since Week 1 due to a concussion and is extremely doubtful for Sunday. Damarious Randall (30th-overall pick in 2015) and Quentin Rollins (62nd-overall in 2015) are two second-year players who had impressive rookie seasons and have seemingly improved so far in 2016. Randall is a versatile defensive back who can line up at either cornerback or safety, while Rollins primarily plays corner. Randall has also missed time with a groin injury and it is unknown whether or not he will play Sunday. In Randall’s absence undrafted second-year man Ladarius Gunter has started in his place, with versatile safety/cornerback Micah Hyde playing the slot. This is one of the top cornerback groups in the league when healthy.
With that said, the Packers safeties are just as good, if not better, led by 2014 first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and veteran Morgan Burnett. Clinton-Dix is starting to emerge as one of the top young safeties in the league, showing improvement over his first two years, while Burnett is a long-time starter who had one of his best seasons in 2015 despite missing five games. Both safeties are versatile in that they can cover and defend the run, and they are both effective blitzers in Dom Capers’ zone-blitz scheme. If that wasn’t enough the Packers also have the previously mentioned Micah Hyde who is capable of playing either cornerback or safety in a pinch.
This truly is one of the top overall secondaries in the league when fully healthy, with plenty of depth, versatility and play-making ability. The only secondaries I would clearly rank over this one are the Broncos, Seahawks, and Cardinals. The fact that the Packers rank in the bottom 10 in the league in passing yards allowed is not indicative of the talent on their roster as starters Shields, Randall, and Burnett have all missed time, not to mention that most of the 385 yards that Matthew Stafford racked up against them came after the Packers had built a 31-3 lead. With Burnett and potentially Randall back this could be a tough group to deal with, especially if Dez Bryant isn’t able to play.
Where The Cowboys Can Take Advantage:
- Potentially banged up secondary if Randall isn’t able to play
- Lack of defensive line depth, if the run game is working the Packers defense could wear down as their front seven is predicated on speed and confusion, not power and size
- The Packers like to replace defensive linemen with linebackers and defensive backs to confuse offenses with complex blitz schemes, which could create favorable opportunities to run against smaller formations
What The Cowboys Must Fear:
- Despite injuries the Packers have the top-ranked run defense in the league by a wide margin
- Deep group of talented pass-rushers between Matthews, Peppers, Perry and Fackrell
- Creative blitz schemes that brings pressure from all angles, this could be particularly difficult for the offensive line as pre-snap communication on the road will be a challenge
Mason Crosby has been a solid, if unspectacular kicker since joining the Packers a decade ago. He has had his ups and downs but you could say that he is a generally average league-wide kicker with exactly an 80% conversion rate over his 10 years, although he has not missed a kick so far in 2016. Micah Hyde is a very dangerous punt returner, with three touchdown returns since entering the league in 2013, although he hasn’t been utilized in that role so far this season. Ty Montgomery and Jeff Janis don’t pose much of a threat as kick returners.