The Cowboys are coming out of their bye week sitting at 6-2, but they now travel to Wisconsin for what will be a quick three-game stretch before a mini-bye of sorts. They’ll take on the Packers on the road this week, stay on the road for a clash with the Vikings, and then return home on a short week for the Thanksgiving game against the Giants.
It all starts in Green Bay, where head coach Mike McCarthy will make his first appearance at Lambeau Field since being fired by the team during the 2018 season. McCarthy has already gotten emotional when talking about his time with the Packers, where he won a Super Bowl. And despite all the reports of friction between he and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, both have been nothing but pleasant when talking about the other.
For the Packers, though, their season has been anything but pleasant, and they’re now losers of five straight games. Green Bay traded away Davante Adams in the offseason and replaced him with a combination of Sammy Watkins and rookies Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs, and Samori Toure. Well, Watkins has been inconsistent much of the year and Watson has struggled to build a rapport with Rodgers. Doubs looked to be emerging, but he suffered a high ankle sprain last week and is expected to miss this week’s game.
This has led to the Packers’ top two pass catchers being tight end Robert Tonyan and running back Aaron Jones. It’s also translated to a really poor offensive start to the season, with the Packers ranked 15th in offensive DVOA. What’s interesting is that they’re tied for 13th in yards per play but are 26th in points scored. They’re moving the ball, but struggle to put the ball in the endzone.
Enter the Cowboys defense, which is sitting at the top of the league in defensive DVOA and is third in both points and yards per play allowed. Much of the Cowboys’ defensive success this year has been predicated on a relentless pass rush that currently leads the league in sacks and pressure rate. Micah Parsons is the ringleader, but Dallas gets pressure from just about everyone on the defensive front.
For Rodgers, pressure has been killing him all year. That’s likely because he just doesn’t have any chemistry with these receivers. Whatever the reason, it’s affecting him in ways it rarely has before. When Rodgers is pressured this year, his completion rate drops from 70% to 45.7%. A lot of that comes from Rodgers simply throwing the ball away: Rodgers is throwing it away 16.5% of the time when pressured, as opposed to just 1.2% when he has a clean pocket.
While Rodgers’ rate of turnover-worthy plays doubles when facing pressure, he’s also tripling his big time throw rate on those plays. Cowboys fans know all too well what Rodgers is capable of when he gets outside of the pocket and throws downfield, so Dallas will need to convert their pressures to sacks. Luckily, they’re already doing that at an extremely high rate, sacking the quarterback on 34.7% of their pressures this year. Furthermore, 81% of the pressures this Green Bay offensive line gives up have come without blitzes, which would allow Dallas to dedicate more players to covering these largely unimpressive pass catchers.
The defense has been even worse for Green Bay, ranking 18th in defensive DVOA. They’ve been especially susceptible to the run, currently ranked 31st in run defense DVOA and giving up the fifth most rushing yards and fifth most first downs on run plays so far. The Cowboys have been one of the NFL’s best rushing teams on the year, currently third in rushing DVOA. Green Bay has had better success against the pass, largely due to a pass rush that’s 10th in pressure rate.
There’s two problems for the Packers in that department, though. For starters, much of their pass rush success has been due to blitzing at the third highest rate of any team this year. But this week they’re facing Dak Prescott, who has utterly annihilated blitzing defenses throughout his career, to the point where defenses have largely stopped blitzing him at all. Will the Packers go away from their usual strategy, and if so, will they still be able to create pressure?
The second issue is edge rusher Rashan Gary, who on Wednesday was added to the injured reserve. Gary leads the team in both sacks and pressures by pretty wide margins, so losing him is a crushing blow to this pass rush. In fact, if you take away his production from this team, Green Bay’s pressure rate drops from 10th to 27th in the league. The Cowboys are likely to run the ball plenty this week, but Prescott will likely have plenty of time to throw when he does drop back to pass, and that can’t be good for the Packers.
Everything we’ve seen from both of these teams all year has suggested the Cowboys should easily win this one. Unsurprisingly, they’re pretty heavily favored despite going on the road to a stadium known for providing a pretty good homefield advantage. But these are still the Packers, and this is still Aaron Rodgers, and Cowboys fans are justified in fearing that this will be the game where they get back on track. Cowboys fans have experienced heartbreak against this franchise at too high a rate to start counting on a win now.
If the Cowboys pull off the win on Sunday, it will extend the Packers’ losing streak to six games. That hasn’t happened since 1988, in case you were looking for even more reason to get concerned about this one. But the Cowboys have successfully avoided several trap games already this year, and with all the history of this matchup, there is no excuse for overlooking the Packers regardless of their record.