The Cowboys Pose A Unique Challenge
In the first 27 minutes of the Packers-Giants game, everything I feared might go wrong went wrong. Aaron Rodgers looked like the below-average player we saw earlier this year, the defense let receivers get behind them repeatedly, and no one seemed to be getting open. Not only did I panic while watching the game, I declared loudly for all to hear that the game was over at 6-0. Rarely has a turnaround been so complete and so dominant.
That said, even in the early going, there were signs that things were not as bad as they seemed. Looking at the game from the perspective of a Giants fan, I saw a team that should have been up big continually throwing away opportunities. The Giants had the Packers on the ropes early and instead of asserting themselves and taking some chances as road underdogs, they choked.
They dropped a ton of balls including at least two touchdowns, and they punted inside of Green Bay territory repeatedly, including an early punt on 4th and 5 at the Green Bay 35. Running back Bobby Rainey inexplicably fielded a kickoff at the 3 yard line and went out of bounds, saving the Packers 37 yards of field position, and was stuffed on a crucial 3rd and 1 play that eventually led to the Packers’ Hail Mary touchdown just before half time. The Giants had their chances, and could not pull the trigger.
It all turned around for the Packers on a 31-yard strike to Davante Adams. Rodgers made a picture perfect throw to Adams in stride after Adams managed to gain a step on rookie Eli Apple. From that point forward the Packer offense put on a clinic of exceptional passing, turning a depressingly slow start into an absolute rout in short order. Aaron Rodgers was a magician inside the pocket, keeping his eyes downfield, buying time, and delivering precision throws into impossibly tight windows. Once the offense kicked into gear, the game was essentially over, but it may never have happened if Dom Capers’ defense hadn’t been extraordinary.
Ladarius Gunter was beaten deep early, but not often, and in this rare instance did not have to pay the penalty for being beaten as Odell Beckham’s hands failed him. Damarious Randall similarly, was beaten early, but rebounded to play an extraordinary game, and while the Giant receivers got all of the attention for an ill-advised boat trip, the Packer secondary played a large role in embarrassing them. While the Packer defensive backs are hardly an elite unit, they are capable of holding up their end of the bargain if the pass rush in front of them getting in the face of opposing quarterbacks. The Packers didn’t record many sacks, but they were constantly in Eli Manning’s face. For every drop that we blame on Odell Beckham’s nautical fun, another was caused by Mike Daniels being an extremely scary individual, and another was caused by Ladarius Gunter punching Beckham 7 times within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage.
The Packers deserve credit, yet, we should not ignore the Giants' mistakes because those mistakes were important. If you were using this game to prognosticate future Giant performances I don’t think it would be terribly useful. Most of the time Odell Beckham does not drop passes, after all. It is important to remember this because several months ago, the Packers played a very similar game, making several uncharacteristic errors after losing a key part of the offense.
Do you remember when Eddie Lacy got hurt? Do you remember that at one point this season the unquestioned Packer offensive MVP was in fact Eddie Lacy? He was injured partway through the first Cowboy game at which point he became completely ineffective, and afterwards, was placed on injured reserve. Ty Montgomery filled in admirably, but with no preparation for the week he changed the Packer game plan. The offense struggled against a Dallas defense that just isn’t that great, and fumbled 5 times (losing 3) over the course of the game.
If you want a clear picture of just how odd this game ended up being, Jeff Janis actually played more offensive snaps than Davante Adams due to a mid-game concussion. From a Packer perspective, everything in this game was a mess. As with the Giants last Sunday, I don’t think this game gives us any indication about how well the team will fare this Sunday, at least from an offensive perspective. I think the Packers will score plenty of points. Preventing them is the issue.
Dallas on Offense
The Cowboy offensive line is simply outstanding. You may remember that the Packers entered the first game as a historically great run defense, and the Cowboys had no trouble at all gaining consistent yardage on the ground. The Packer run defense did come back down to earth the rest of the season, but it was still a well above average unit, and the Cowboy’s performance was both impressive, and likely to repeat itself. This is unfortunate because the lack of Giant run game is what allowed the Packers to be so effective against the Giant wide receivers by devoting extra personnel to bracketing Beckham. The Cowboys, unlike the Giants, are balanced, they spread you thin, and while Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley are not as talented as Odell Beckham and company, they will be more open. The most important matchup of the game will be the Packer pass rush against Dak Prescott and his protectors.
Prescott has had an exceptional year for a rookie, but he is a bit of a game manager. It is clear that not turning the ball over is his primary focus and you may remember that he did not throw his first interception until week 6 against the Packers. On the season he threw only 4 picks, against 23 touchdowns, and while Prescott is essentially a fairly conservative game manager, that is not meant as a slight as he is a very effective one, ranking 3rd in DVOA on the season. I have no doubt that in future seasons he will develop into a true weapon, but tasked with executing the Cowboy game plan this season he has done everything asked of him and more. He is sometimes prone to taking sacks even behind his exceptional line, as he took 2 or more in half of his games, but the vast majority of the time those come about not because of true pressure, but an overabundance of caution. The team that really did manage to get to Prescott recently was the Giants a few weeks ago. They battered the young QB into his worst performance of the season in a 10-7 loss.
The Packers are not holding anyone to 7 points as currently constructed, but given their ability to score and score often, their best bet in this game is to bring the house, get in the rookie’s face, hit him repeatedly, and accept that the secondary may surrender a long touchdown or 2. They should trust Aaron Rodgers and the offense to make up for any big plays, and bet on the defense eventually getting home. Dallas wants to avoid turnovers, and the Packers should focus on creating them, especially if they struggle against the run early. Dallas is at their best when they can run and dictate the pace of the game. Their defense relies on tempo (or lack thereof) to be effective, and their pass defense only ranks 18th by DVOA.
If the Packers want to win this game, they should turn it into a shootout, and given their recent tendencies, that might just be what happens.
The Packers will probably have to go to battle without Jordy Nelson, who suffered broken ribs on a dirty hit from the Giants’ Leon Hall. The amazing and apparently full recovery of Randall Cobb will help, but the Cowboys are most vulnerable against #2 receivers (possibly Cobb, but most likely Geronimo Allison in this game) and tight ends. Jared Cook is once again an important cog in the game plan, as is Allison. Allison was recently charged with marijuana possession, and while he should be able to play, it would pose major issues in the event he was suspended. Both Cook and Allison will have to step up against the NFC’s best team.
I wrote last week that Jared Cook would be a key to defeating the Giants, and while his numbers don’t stand out, they don’t do justice to his actual performance. Cook was wide open for a big gain on a first quarter go route and Aaron Rodgers missed him. Had the throw been on target Cook’s output would have been huge, however his most important play of the day was actually mistake. As the Packers were driving down the field near the end of the first half, they found themselves with 3rd and 2 from the Giant 42 with 12 seconds left and no timeouts. Rodgers fired a bullet to Cook over the deep middle, but as he sometimes does, Cook just dropped it. Had he managed to pull it in, the clock would have almost certainly expired. It hit his hands with just 6 seconds remaining and the entire offense would have been hard pressed to line up for a spike. Instead, as they were just out of Crosby’s field goal range, they had to attempt a Hail Mary.
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