The Green Bay Packers will travel to AT&T Stadium to take on the Cowboys in the Divisional round of the playoffs. 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 top two quarterbacks in the league, and quite possibly the best, plain and simple. He is a former Super Bowl MVP, two-time NFL MVP, two-time First Team All-Pro and there is a very good chance that he will be in the Hall of Fame within the next 10-15 years. 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.
During the regular season he led the league with 40 touchdowns to just seven interceptions, including 18 touchdowns and no interceptions over the last seven games of the season. He continued that in the Wild Card game last week against the Giants with four touchdowns to no interceptions and is playing some of the best ball of his career.
That’s the bad news.
The good news?
I believe that his supposed slow start is a bit over exaggerated. He is certainly playing better now than he was during the first matchup in October, but if you go back to that time you’ll see that in his first game following the Cowboys loss he threw for over 300 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions against Chicago. The week after that he threw four touchdowns and no interceptions, and nearly beat Atlanta on the road. Two weeks before he played the Cowboys he threw four touchdowns and no interceptions against Detroit.
Rodgers and the offense were productive all season, they’re certainly more explosive and better as of late, but it seems like people want to pretend that their offense was similar to that of the Jaguars or Browns when these two teams met early in the season. That wasn’t the case and the Cowboys defense still did a good job on the road with only two pure cornerbacks for the entire second half.
The Cowboys defense will clearly have their work cut out for them in stopping him, he’s a living legend at the quarterback position and they may very well do nothing to slow him down, but they have a better shot than most in the mainstream media would have you believe.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
The big story here is clearly the health of Jordy Nelson, the Packers leading receiver in receptions (97), yards (1,257), and touchdowns (14). After suffering what has been reported as “at least” two broken ribs, it seems unlikely that he will be able to play Sunday considering the fact that he wasn’t even able to walk off the field with an injury to his upper body. The insistence of head coach Mike McCarthy that he could play if he’s able to go through a Saturday “practice” seems like more gamesmanship than anything. If he is indeed unable to play it will be a huge loss as he is not just their best receiver, but also Rodgers’ most trusted target.
Fortunately for Green Bay they have two very capable replacements who can step in for Nelson in Davante Adams and Randall Cobb. Between the two, Adams is more of the outside, downfield threat with size at 6-1, 215, while Cobb is more of a threat out of the slot and in the middle of the field. Both can do significant damage, just in different ways. On the year Adams is second behind Nelson in catches (75), yards (997), and touchdowns (12), while Cobb is third on the team in all three categories.
These two have both played very well recently and seem to be in rhythm with Rodgers, but don’t let anyone tell you that they have only emerged as of late, which seems to be a commonly held belief. In the game immediately before and after the first matchup between these two teams Adams and Cobb combined for over 400 yards and four touchdowns, so the theory that their recent emergence is one of the main reasons for their offensive resurgence is just not true. The offense as a whole did slump in the middle of the year, mostly in November, but generally speaking they were playing well going into their game against Dallas earlier in the year, as well as immediately afterwards. Geronimo Allison will likely be the Packers’ third receiver if Nelson is unable to go.
One major factor the Dallas defense will have to account for that they didn’t have to in the first matchup is veteran tight end Jared Cook. Cook missed six games to start the season, including the first matchup between these two, but he has since returned and established himself as the Packers number one tight end. In just 10 games he has outproduced Richard Rodgers (who has played all 16 games) by over 100 yards. Cook isn’t an elite tight end but he has been generally productive and can threaten a defense over the middle and vertically.
Rodgers also cannot be forgotten as he is a capable pass catcher and has developed a level of trust with his quarterback over the years, not to mention that he was on the receiving end of the Hail Mary that won the game last year in Detroit.
With Eddie Lacy out for the year and James Starks out for an extended period of time the Packers turned to former receiver Ty Montgomery at running back right around the time of the first matchup. On the year Montgomery has 457 rushing yards, as well as an impressive 5.9 YPC, but that number is artificially inflated by the fact that he has only run the ball 77 times on the year and had 162 yards rushing against the Bears about a month ago. Aside from that game Montgomery has only rushed the ball 10 or more times once all season, and that was last week against New York when he had 27 yards on 11 carries. He also has just three rushing touchdowns on the year, and again, two of those came in that same game against the Bears. Considering Montgomery’s history as a receiver it’s no surprise that since he has taken over as the starting “running back” he has gained more yards receiving than rushing in six out of 11 games. As such, the Cowboys must be aware of him motioning out of the backfield as a receiver.
The more traditional threat out of the backfield may be former Seahawk Christine Michael, although since joining the team in late November he has never reached 50 yards rushing and has just 114 yards on 31 carries. With that said, he does run very hard downhill and if he gets hot he can be the spark that ignites a drive or two. He isn’t a threat as a receiver, but the Cowboys can’t fall asleep on him when he’s in the game.
Aaron Rodgers is the team’s second leading rusher with 369 yards, and he actually leads the team with four rushing touchdowns. That should tell you all you need to know about Green Bay’s running game, it is imperative that the Cowboys defense dominates in this regard, thus forcing Rodgers to consistently convert third down and medium to long.
While the Packers don’t have a star-studded offensive line (only one of the five has ever made a Pro Bowl and none has ever been First Team All-Pro), this is still one of the better lines in the league, especially in pass protection. Amazingly, each of the starters has 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, aside from 2010 first-round pick Bryan Bulaga at right tackle. Left tackle David Bakhtiari and right guard T.J. Lang were fourth-round picks, center Corey Linsley was a fifth-round pick, and 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.
Linsley did not play in the first matchup, but his replacement, J.C. Tretter, actually performed admirably in his absence. Taylor at left guard is the weak link of the line as he had barely any starting experience coming into 2016, although he hasn’t missed a game so far this season.
Despite the fact that Lang is the one who made the Pro Bowl, Bakhtiari is the Packers best lineman as he has quietly developed into one of the better left tackles in the league over the last few years. He even finished second in the All-Pro voting amongst left tackles this year, only behind the Cowboys’ Tyron Smith. Bulaga and Lang are both solid starters on the right side, but neither are necessarily elite players despite Lang’s Pro Bowl nod.
Overall, this is an excellent pass-blocking unit, but they do struggle in the run game and some would consider them a bit of a finesse group. There’s also no doubt that Rodgers’ legendary pocket presence makes them look much better than they are at times.
Where The Cowboys Can Take Advantage:
- Poor running game and lack of a legitimate threat at running back will likely force the Packers into becoming one-dimensional
- If Jordy Nelson is unable to play the Cowboys secondary should be able to contain the rest of the Packers receiving threats
What The Cowboys Must Fear:
- Aaron Rodgers; even without a credible running game or elite receivers he can carve up any defense at any time
- Very good pass-protecting offensive line