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 lbs. 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 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 every year since 2013 and will be a big challenge for the interior of the Cowboys offensive line.
Next to Daniels the next most impactful lineman is Letroy Guion, who is more of a traditional run-stuffing defensive tackle that is difficult to move against the run but doesn’t provide much as a pass-rusher. Rookie Kenny Clark will rotate in at times; he is primarily a run-stuffer who has done a nice job as a rotational lineman. 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, along with Datone Jones who can stand up or play with his hand down and primarily comes in on passing downs as an interior pass-rusher.
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 year Matthews is still a very good 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, but he had just five in 2016 as he dealt with various injuries. Still, Matthews has a knack for the big play, especially in big games, so he must be accounted for at all times as he will certainly be moved all around the formation.
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 in 2015 and 7.5 in 2016. He will be a difficult matchup for right tackle Doug Free.
Less heralded veteran outside linebacker Nick Perry isn’t as well-known as Matthews or Peppers but he had a breakout 2016 with a team-leading 11 sacks after 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.
Matthews, Peppers, and Perry will move 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 to ensure that they are on the same page as far as the protections. If they are able to do that, they should be able to have success against this group, because in my opinion the sack numbers of this defense over-exaggerate the pass-rush talent on the roster as this has been a defense that has given up big plays and long drives.
The more 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 next to Thomas, who barely played as a rookie. These two are the team’s most trusted traditional linebackers, although in clear passing situations you will often see one or both removed in favor of dropping a safety down into the box. Rookie fourth-round pick Blake Martinez has also played well after being pressed into early playing time with injuries along the front seven and rotates in with Ryan and Thomas.
This is a clear weak spot of the defense and the middle of the field should be an area the Cowboys look to take advantage of, clearly in the running game, but also in the passing game if any of these linebackers end up matched up on Jason Witten, Cole Beasley, or Ezekiel Elliott out of the backfield.
Coming into the season some would have argued that this is one of the better secondaries in the league, and they may have been right, but since then this group has been battered with a rash of injuries, resulting in a unit that ranks fourth from the bottom in passing yards allowed and is prone to giving up big plays. Veteran Sam Shields was placed on I.R. early in the season due to concussion issues, while Quentin Rollins, the 62nd-overall pick in 2015, could also miss the game with concussion/neck-related injuries suffered late in the regular season.
That leaves just Damarious Randall, the 30th-overall pick in 2015, undrafted second-year player Ladarius Gunter, and safety/slot cornerback Micah Hyde at cornerback. Randall and Gunter will generally play outside, with Hyde in the slot, although Gunter was asked to shadow Odell Beckham Jr. last week due to his size (6-2, 201 lbs.), with safety help over the top of course. It will be interesting to see if the Packers do the same thing with Dez Bryant this week. This is an opportunistic group of cornerbacks as Hyde and Randall have combined for 12 interceptions over the last two seasons, each with three in both 2015 and 2016. Dak Prescott will have to be patient on Sunday and not force anything, if he is able to do that he should be able to connect on some chunk gains.
Despite the weakness at cornerback, the Packers safeties are quite good, 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 statistical seasons in 2016 with two interceptions and three sacks.
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. Clinton-Dix is more of the deep coverage safety (he has five interceptions on the year), while you’re more likely to see Burnett in the box, supporting the run, blitzing, or covering a tight end, but both are versatile enough to play coverage, stop the run or blitz.
The key to this unit is that there is next to no depth behind these five players if Rollins is unable to play. Against the Giants each of the five healthy players mentioned above played every single snap, and the only other defensive back to play a snap was someone named Kentrell Brice, an undrafted free agent safety who has played sparingly this year. Even if Rollins returns the Cowboys should have success against this unit, but if he is out it just makes matters that much worse for the Packers.
Where The Cowboys Can Take Advantage:
- Banged up secondary with little depth and average at best cornerbacks
- 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 zone-blitz schemes, which could create favorable opportunities to run against smaller formations
- Defense as a whole has been prone to giving up big plays and time-consuming drives
What The Cowboys Must Fear:
- Deep group of pass-rushers between Matthews, Peppers, and Perry, which could be an issue if the Cowboys get down and are forced to abandon the run game
- Creative blitz schemes that bring pressure from all angles and could confuse a rookie quarterback in a highly pressurized situation
- Versatile safeties that can impact the game in various ways
- High-risk, high-reward defense that gives up big plays but can also make big plays as far as turnovers and sacks