Last season the Cowboys traveled to Lambeau Field and exorcised the demons that haunted them from their disappointing playoff loss in 2014. It was the game that propelled the Cowboys as a legit contender last year started to reveal that a new franchise quarterback was emerging right before our eyes.
But nobody cares about that anymore. After what we were put through last January, there are new demons to dispel. Aaron Rodgers broke our hearts with a ridiculously long completion to Jared Cook that set up a season-ending field goal. It’s clear that the Green Bay Packers have the Cowboys number and nothing would be more satisfying that to beat them on Sunday.
But the Cowboys cannot let that happen. They need to get back on track with a win over one of their two “first-place” schedule games. Here are my five keys to victory.
1. Get off to an early start
Last year in the playoffs, this game turned into a nail-biter, but the Cowboys had to dig themselves out of a hole to make it a competitive game. The Packers jumped out to a 21-3 lead and many Cowboys fans to start packing it in and bracing themselves for the season to end. One can’t help wondering how things would have went down had the Cowboys just started the game off a little better. And that is what needs to happen on Sunday.
The Cowboys have to get back to their style of football. That includes a strong running game, manageable third downs for Dak Prescott, and a defense that gets to play with a lead. This means the Cowboys offensive line has to handle the Packers in the trenches and allow Ezekiel Elliott to pound the ball. The offense needs to turn drives into points and put more pressure on the Packers to keep up. Aaron Rodgers is a great quarterback, but he’s human. And like all human quarterbacks, the tendency to make mistakes increase when you put them in tougher situations.
2. Don’t give Aaron extra plays
There are few things more annoying that when Rodgers tries to steal extra plays by catching the defense off guard. Dallas has fallen victim to this exact thing too many times. Between the regular season and the playoff game, the Cowboys defense was penalized for having 12 players on the field three times. The defense would try to change out their personnel and Rodgers would alertly recognize this and quickly snap the ball. And when he gets a free play, he’s going for the jugular.
The Cowboys can’t allow this to happen. It’s hard enough getting the Packers offense off the field with a normal dose of chances, let alone freebies. The defense needs to be mindful of the players they have on the field and be smart with their rotations.
3. The return of the Packer Smacker
Week five is a special week for those of us who have been singing the praises of David Irving. He now will join a defensive line group that features a hot and spicy DeMarcus Lawrence and Maliek Collins. Together, this trio is equipped be disruptive to the Packers offensive line. The last defensive snap that Irving played in was one that will linger in the hearts of Cowboys fans for quite some time. It’s also a time that Irving was mauled as he was trying to get after Rodgers.
This wound is deep for many Cowboys players, but you better believe Irving will be playing with a vengeance on Sunday. He’s back and he’s ready!
Cowboys DC Rod Marinelli on return of David Irving: "He came in pretty dog-gone good shape. He's bigger. He's out there eating palm trees and stuff, a dinosaur. He looks solid in practice."— Brandon George (@DMN_George) October 5, 2017
Hopefully, those palm trees are all-natural and don’t contain any hidden ingredients.
Irving was named Defensive Player of the Week when he played the Packers in Week 6 of last year. He had three forced fumbles, four tackles, and a batted down pass on the day. The most impressive part was that he did all that in just 19 snaps. He’ll be playing more than 19 snaps this time around.
4. Use the passing game to open up the run
The Cowboys identity is to run the football. I know it and you know it. But unfortunately, everyone in the league knows it and defenses have been overloading on early downs to stop the run. It’s been a great strategy. The Cowboys have gone for four yards or more on 41% of their first down plays, which is right around the league average. They were 50% last year. The Cowboys used to be one of the top first-down producing teams in the league, but now have fizzled into mediocrity.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that the Cowboys have converted 20 of 52 third downs this season (38.5%) which puts them right on par with the NFL average. I’m not saying average is bad, but the 2016 Cowboys weren’t average and if this offense wants to get back to being a force, they need to overcome this dysfunction.
The Cowboys need to not be so stubborn with the running game on first down and work in more play-action. When they do this, it has typically produced great results. Two of the Cowboys biggest passing plays over the last couple weeks have come when the defense was all ready to come crashing down on Zeke. Dallas needs to mix it up and not be predictable on offense. Throw the ball to Cole Beasley at times other than just third down when the defense knows you’re looking his way.
The Packers are going to have some difficulties stopping the run so don’t aid them with foreseeable play calling. Get the defense on their heels and keep them guessing.
5. Close and wrap up
The Packers offense can hurt you in two main ways. Rodgers will get the ball out to his receivers quickly and allow them to make plays in space. Or, if he’s able to break contain and roam around in the pocket, he’s very likely to find a target with enough space to fit the ball. As we saw last year, it doesn’t take very much space at all.
It’s very hard to hold the coverage when the quarterback has extra time and the Cowboys secondary has been pretty good about sticking their receivers. But one thing they’ve been inconsistent in is wrapping up after the catch. Some of the rookies like Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods have been outstanding making open field tackles, but then other players have struggled.
The Cowboys defense is ranked 11th in the league in passing yards per attempt so despite some breakdowns at times, they’ve also showed the ability to do well. They must take proper angles and finish plays quickly and not allow the Packers receivers to get loose. Otherwise, Rodgers is going to tear them up.
What will you be looking for on Sunday?