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Packers Week 6 Preview: Defense Looks To Slow Prescott And Elliott

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Prescott and Elliott Lead Dallas to Lambeau

When the Dallas Cowboys travel to Lambeau Field on Sunday they will be searching for their first win against the Packers since 2008. Green Bay has won the previous 5 match-ups between the two teams, including the controversial “what is a catch?” game in the 2015 playoffs, and yes, Dez did drop it. However, this time around Dallas is armed with new weapons in a pair of talented rookies, quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott.

The two rising stars are protected by one of the best offensive lines in the league, only in competition with Green Bay’s group up front. This game will produce an intriguing old school duel between the Dallas offensive line and the Packers dominate front 7 in Dom Capers 3-4 defense.

Both teams have been bitten by the injury bug numerous times over the past few years, and this year has been no different. As Sunday nears the Cowboys wait to see if Dez Bryant can go, and the Packers pray Eddie Lacy will be healed. Whoever is cleared to go, you can guarantee a Packers-Cowboys game will not disappoint.

The NFL’s Top Ranked Rush Offense vs the Top Rush Defense

In order for the Packers to keep pace with the undefeated Minnesota Vikings, their number one priority against the Cowboys will be stopping Ezekiel Elliott. So far in 2016, Elliott leads the NFL in rushing yards with 546. His numbers are so remarkable he has gained more yards than 23 teams have in total.

A majority of his early season success has been linked to the work of his friends up front.

DeMarco Murray found out just how easy it can be to run behind the Dallas line in 2014. Now with the Titans, the former Cowboy rushed for 1,845 yards and 13 touchdowns following the line adorned with numerous Pro-Bowlers.

Dallas’ line is made up of three first-round draft picks and two veteran starters. The first-round picks include left tackle Tyron Smith (3 straight pro-bowls), center Travis Fredrick (2 straight pro-bowls),  and right guard Zack Martin (2 straight pro-bowls).

Elliott has masterfully found the sweet spot running behind the massive men.

His last three games he has rushed for 140 yards on 30 carries (4.7 per carry) versus Chicago, 138 on 23 carries (6.0 per carry) versus the 49ers, and 134 on 15 carries (8.9 per carry) versus the Bengals.

He has also added five touchdowns to his resume, good enough for 2nd in the league. Elliott and the Cowboys top notch rush offense could be poised to be a foil for the Packers equally as impressive rush defense.

So far in 2016 the Packers defense ranks first in the NFL in rushing yards per game (42.8), rushing yards per attempt (2.0), and total yards rushing (171) while only giving up one run of 10 yards or more and no runs of more than 20.

In contrast, Elliott has had at least one rush of 20 yards or more in every game but week 1. He was also able to break off a 60 yard touchdown last week against Cincinnati.

At this point the Packers true ability to shut down running backs can still be questioned. Essentially every single week this season they faced opposing teams backups.

Week 1 the Jaguars were without Chris Ivory, week 2 the Vikings were without Adrian Peterson much of the game, week 3 the Lions were without Ameer Abdullah, and week 5 the Giants were without Rashad Jennings.

These injuries create a big question, is this rush defense real or faux? Elliott and the Cowboy’s line may shed some light on that.

Green Bay’s Elite Pass Rush Takes Aim at Prescott

Elliott hasn’t been the only one making people believers through the first five games. Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott also has created a significant buzz.

After long-term quarterback Tony Romo went down with injury yet again this preseason, the starting job was given to Prescott. For Cowboy fans, this has been a blessing in disguise.

I do believe Romo ultimately gives Dallas a better shot at a championship this year, but for their future, Prescott’s experiences now may provide a better solution to a puzzle Romo could never figure out.

Including the playoff loss in 2015, Romo lost his previous three starts against Green Bay. Despite having decent stats and the lead in a majority of the match-ups he has failed to put the nail in the Packers coffin each and every time.

Prescott has proven so far this year he has what it takes to make the play Romo has not made throughout his entire career, the smart one.

During the Cowboys win over the Bengals last weekend, he established a rookie record of 135 pass attempts to start a career without an interception. Against Green Bay this Sunday he will attempt to break Tom Brady’s overall mark for passes in a row without an interception to open a career, needing just 6 to tie and 7 to break the record.

Besides his lack of turnovers, he has also put up solid numbers to go along with Elliott’s. Through 5 weeks he has completed nearly 70% of his passes for 1,239 yards and four touchdowns. His QBR stands at 83.9, second only to Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons (87.6).

Prescott has been efficient, but has been rarely forced to make quick decisions. Whether by play design or pass protection from his outstanding line, he has only been sacked 7 times in 2016. Brian Hoyer (3) and Derek Carr (5) are the only quarterbacks with more than 100 pass attempts that have been sacked less.

This sets up another collision of strengths.

The Packers pass rush has been one of the best in the league thus far. Green Bay’s defense is currently averaging 3.5 sacks per game, and if extended through 16 games that would give them a projected total of 56. Last season, the Broncos defense ranked 1st with only 52.

Green Bay’s Nick Perry headlines the blitz heavy linebacker crew with 4.5 sacks. In the first four games Perry, according to PFF, is the 2nd ranked 3-4 outside linebacker behind only Von Miller in terms of pass rush.

Whether Perry or Clay Matthews line up across from left tackle Tyron Smith, it will be a big-time duel. Smith has not practiced for the Cowboys this week, but I expect him to play come Sunday.

Putting pressure on the Cowboys’ young quarterback will be the difference in this game, especially if Dez Bryant is unable to play. As they did to Eli Manning last Sunday night, they need to get into his head early and often to make him uncomfortable. With the Packers offense still skidding it is as important as ever for the defense to get to Prescott.

Rodgers Efficiency Continues to Plummet Downhill

With week 2 against the Vikings as the only exception, the Packers have faced primarily beat up and undermanned secondaries in 2016. Green Bay has still struggled to get their offense rolling despite the somewhat easy road.

The historically efficient Aaron Rodgers has been uncharacteristically sloppy to start the season. After throwing 2 interception to Janoris Jenkins of the Giants last week, Rodgers now has accumulated 4 turnovers in 4 games (3 interceptions, 1 fumble). These may not seem like large numbers to most, but Rodgers hasn’t had double-digit interceptions since 2010, and is now on pace for 12.

His completion percentage continues to dive as well. Currently, he ranks dead last in the league among quarterbacks in the stat at 56.1%. He has been able to get into the endzone 11 times (9 passing, 2 rushing) despite the struggles, 2.75 touchdowns per game, second only to Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers.

Rodgers will square off against a Cowboys defense that has been highly criticized over the years, but has been stingy this year. Against the Bengals, corners Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr shut down All-pro receiver AJ Green.

Along with Green, the secondary has held Odell Beckham Jr. of the Giants, DeSean Jackson of the Redskins, and Alshon Jeffery of the Bears to no more than 5 catches and 70 yards.

Even though the Cowboys lost in Green Bay last year, their defense will be going in with some confidence. In the meeting, Rodgers only threw for 218 yards and resembled the quarterback we’ve seen in 2016.

This week, Dallas should probably be more concerned with who is in the backfield behind Rodgers.

Lacy and Ripkowski May Hold Solution to Offensive Woes

Sunday night, the Packers used a little old school football to escape with a win. Early in the game, they relied on running back Eddie Lacy early and often to move the football. On only 11 carries he rushed for 81 yards.

Head coach Mike McCarthy called on fullback Aaron Ripkowski to become a larger part of the offense as well. He even got the call on a 3rd and 1 run and took it for a hard fought 13 yards with half of the Giants on his back. It was the biggest pop of the night from the somewhat dead Lambeau crowd, most likely having flashbacks of fan favorite John Kuhn.

Ripkowski’s true calling comes in blocking for Lacy and creating holes for the big man to run through. Sunday night it was clear when the two teamed up in the backfield that the Green Bay run game can be prolific. Unfortunately, after a string of big runs Lacy again was forced to leave a game due to an ankle injury.

This Sunday’s may come down to the health of Lacy. The offense looks almost like an exact opposite when he is or isn’t out there.

In 2015, he struggled with his weight and failed to live up to his potential, and the offense did as well. Now in 2016, the Packers have failed many times when he has been nursing injuries on the sideline. This makes me wonder if missing a 100% healthy Lacy is the cause of the offensive struggles the past two years, not the absence of Jordy Nelson or poor play-calling.

Final Thoughts

It has become a running line in Wisconsin that Rodgers and the offense will “snap out of it eventually”, but at some point it seems more likely this year Green Bay will have to change their thinking and rely on grit and heart more than glitz and glam. There is no shame in winning ugly as long as you win.

At Lambeau Field on Sunday, the Cowboys have a chance to make a statement against the Packers. Prescott and Elliott will show the NFL if they are just a flavor of the month or here to stay.

One thing I’ve learned over the years about the Green Bay Packers through on field play and numerous State Farm Insurance commercials, as Clay Matthews put it, “Nobody comes into their house without paying the price”.