Strength on Strength
Oct. 11, 2016
Pictured Above: The most dominant Packer defender from Sunday. Also pictured, Clay Matthews.
Coming into this season I thought that the Packer defense would be the strength of the team, and that while the offense would probably be good, they didn’t really make enough changes in the offseason to give me complete confidence in a total rebound. While the occasional problems from the offense are concerning, the lackluster pass defense was the real problem for this team, and that weakness stemmed mostly from Damarious Randall. The second year player impressed last year, but did gamble a lot and mostly got away with it. Randall is an interesting prospect, and his potential has drawn universal praise, however some scouts have openly questioned his ability to play outside, and he’s struggled mightily this year. Randall may eventually settle into the slot while Shields, Rollins, and Gunter man the outside, and that’s a perfectly fine fate, but the important thing for the Packers is that Randall’s absence allowed the team to get a look at a different starting pair of corners, with two healthy safeties behind them, and it paid off huge.
Pictured above: Cornerback Quinten Rollins
Gunter’s Standout Game
Ladarius Gunter is a bit of an odd duck. He’s big for a corner at 6’1”, 200 pounds, and he’s on the slow side, having posted a 4.69 40-yard dash at the combine. His measurables kept him from being drafted and Ted Thompson signed him as an undrafted free agent before last season. Gunter has looked good almost every time he’s taken the field, be it in preseason, in limited action as an injury fill-in, and now in a starting role. Going into this game I was worried that the very speedy Giant receivers would easily run by Gunter, and we would have a repeat of the huge performances that Stefon Diggs and Marvin Jones put up against Damarious Randall. Instead, Gunter dominated Beckham in press coverage, beating him up throughout the night, and holding him to 0 catches despite spending about half the game covering him. Speed usually wins these types of battles, but Gunter exhibited excellent technique, discipline, patience, and especially power in keeping guys in front of him. Gunter is excellent with his hands, and was able to consistently disrupt timing plays which was particularly effective against the Giants as Eli Manning gets the ball out quicker than any other quarterback in the league. As a result, the Giant short passing game was completely thrown off and the offense was ineffective all evening.
Rollins was not quite as good and Beckham was able to beat him a few times for first downs, but the key for the Packers is that neither back let anything disastrous happen behind them (though they were helped by a few drops, including a sure touchdown to backup TE Will Tye), and let the pass rush up front help them out. This is how the Packer defense is supposed to work. The secondary should be a strength, but all it really has to do is hold on until Matthews, Daniels, Perry, Peppers, or in this game Kyler Fackrell get home. The Giants’ offense has struggled, and a better test will come next week, but the Packers can improve their defense drastically if they can address pass coverage, and if they can turn into the top-5 unit I think they’re capable of being, the offensive struggles will cease to matter much.
Gunter’s combine profile is an interesting read in light of his performance in the Giant game. The authors of these profiles list the player’s measurables, give a brief scouting report of the player’s strengths and weaknesses, and at the end, compare them to an established NFL player. Gunter’s pre-draft comparable was Josh Norman, another big, slowish corner who has been excellent for a year and a half. Norman left the Panthers for Washington in the offseason and that defection is one of the reasons the Panthers have struggled. In the right scheme, Norman is one of the NFL’s best corners primarily because of his physical presence, and Gunter’s style of play is quite similar (with less trash-talking). If Ted Thompson managed to find even a Josh Norman-lite as an undrafted free agent, it may be his greatest trick since bringing in undrafted free agent Sam Shields.
Dallas: The Best Running Team in the League
The Cowboys are fresh off a thrashing of the Cincinnati Bengals. In that game the Cowboys ran 29 times (while attempting just 24 passes), led by Ezekiel Elliott’s 134 yards on just 15 carries. Alfred Morris chipped in an additional 33 yards on just 6 carries. Dallas possesses one of the league’s best offensive lines and a back that can make use of it, and they’ve parlayed that dominant run game into an efficient passing game led by rookie quarterback Dak Prescott and a bunch of nobodies. Entering the Bengal game last weekend they ranked 1st in rushing offensive efficiency according to DVOA, and their performance on Sunday only solidified their lofty ranking. That said, they did struggle running against one team this season, in their first and only loss, against the New York Giants.
The Giants entered the Packer game as the fifth best team against the run, and while the Packers had a lot of success running against the Giants, they were a much different, and much healthier team in week 1 when they beat the Cowboys. That Giants team held Elliott to 51 yards on 20 carries. In addition to the Giants, the Cowboys have faced Washington, the Bears, the 49ers, and the Bengals. Washington has the league’s worst rushing defense by far, the Bears rank 20th, and the 49ers rank 19th. The Bengals have had a stingy run defense this year and Elliott’s performance against them was impressive, but for the most part the Cowboys have feasted on teams with subpar defenses.
On the other side, the Packers have an elite run defense, but they also haven’t faced anyone of note. The Vikings had one of the worst lines in football and an aged Adrian Peterson, the Jaguars were relying on T.J. Yeldon, and the Lions mostly have pass-catchers out of the backfield. I have no doubt that the Packer run defense is better than it has been in years, but it might not hold running backs to under 2 yards a carry all season.
If the Cowboys are able to run on the Packers, more power to them, however I suspect this will turn into a shootout, and that dynamic definitely favors the Packers. Outside of last week the Cowboys have struggled against passing offenses, and Aaron Rodgers should be able to put up enough points to win. The Dallas passing game relies heavily on drawing up the defense to stop the run, and effective use of play action. Their line also provides Prescott with plenty of time to survey the field. Usually stopping the run is overrated, however in this instance it would disrupt the entire Dallas offense, and force their offensive line to face a level of pass rush they haven’t seen before.
If Eddie Lacy misses the game with his ankle injury it will be up to Rodgers and company to pick apart a suspect pass defense and keep Dallas from getting a lead. If they can, and the run defense remains up to the challenge, they should be able come away with a win, but this should be one of the more entertaining games of the year, and likely a close one.