Tuesday and Wednesday, we are going to look at the Cowboys' matchups for Sunday's divisional playoff game against the Green Bay Packers and discuss what the Cowboys can do to reach the NFC Championship Game. We review the matchup in Week 6, look at the current affairs of each side, and try to imagine some objectives for Scott Linehan and Rod Marinelli.
I don't wish to spoil tomorrow's piece, but let's just say Linehan is going to have a much easier strategy session than Marinelli. The defense is going to have to figure quite a few problems out that they will be presented with on Sunday. But, the offense? They just have to be themselves.
Dallas has one of the best offenses in the NFL, and if it continues to perform at those levels, there is no reason it cannot play in a Super Bowl in 3 weeks. You could argue the Cowboys never played better than in this Week 6 battle in Green Bay, and you could also argue that this playoff game may resemble the Pittsburgh game in that both offenses were able to score at will - and therefore, the team with the ball last might be the one to win. This game could have an NBA feel to it. One stop might be enough to win the game.
But, let's focus on Scott Linehan's situation here for a moment. Some easy thoughts to start:
1) Green Bay is a high-risk defense. They will concede a ton of yardage and not seem to care, because the overall philosophy for Dom Capers up there for several years is that yards are just numbers. He is trying to find takeaways. The best way to get takeaways are sacks and pressure. And the best way to generate pressure is to leave your corners on islands. This often leads to a lot of chances for the offense, and he is playing the odds that if you are going to drive the ball, you will at some point either get reckless with the ball or fail on a 3rd down. The good news here is that the Cowboys were great in both regards this season. They never turned the ball over and were quite efficient on 3rd downs. The Cowboys were also able to chase the Packers out of their blitzes.
2) The Packers don't have the ability to man-up with their current corner personnel. You could argue that their only healthy corner this year - LaDarius Gunter - was their 5th corner when the season began. Sam Shields is their lead and makes $12 million a year. He has played in 1 game. Then, Damarious Randall and Quinton Rollins are their top draft picks from 2015 and both played in 10 games. So, from a standpoint of their top 3 corners, they have lost 29 starts among them in just this season. That leaves Gunter, Randall (back again), and Micah Hyde to play corner for them. This is better than what it was in Week 6, but there are some significant matchup issues.
3) The Packers' pass rush was pretty good at times this season, but not now. On paper, Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, Mike Daniels, and Nick Perry looks scary. But, Matthews will have surgery when the season ends on a shoulder that has been jacked up since their trip to Philadelphia in November, and he appears to be a shell of himself. Nick Perry broke his hand and has had to play with a club on it, which has not helped his effectiveness. Julius Peppers does have a few moments a game at his advanced age, but their pass rush is not going to overwhelm Dallas at all.
4) Ezekiel Elliott ran all day against them in Week 6 and did not have Dez Bryant to affect the safeties. It will be tempting for the Cowboys to look around at all of the inviting matchups, but they should not lose the plot. Elliott and the running game should allow them to hold the ball and keep Aaron Rodgers on the sideline. This is the easiest route to victory. They need to plaster that all over the gameplan so they don't forget when the adrenaline starts pumping. This should be a game to shoot for 40 minutes of possession time. Yes, there are chances in the passing game. But, you will want to fight the urge to go looking to take advantage of them, because your best opportunity is feeding Zeke.
5) Cole Beasley is a massive mismatch. I know most people will think Dez is your matchup issue, but I don't believe that in this game. Gunter is very solid against physical receivers (even Julio Jones), but speed gives them fits as a group. Micah Hyde inside against Beasley was a matchup that was very successful in Week 6. The Packers have no better options in the slot and this should be even better on a fast track.
Here was the damage Beasley did back on October 16th, thanks to another John Daigle chart. He had 6 catches on 6 targets and 2 touchdowns of the 5 he had all year.
Cole Beasley Route Chart - Week 6
Let's look at a few:
This first one was a quick hitter to beat a Green Bay blitz. As you can see, Green Bay is chasing out a LB to try to deal with Brice Butler and Cole Beasley. That goes quite poorly for Dom Capers.
So, this is Micah Hyde lining up in man against Beasley on the goal-line. Asking him or just about any corner to handle this seems like a very poor job of tactics from Green Bay. And, Dallas takes easy advantage of it. They are in man because they need all of the manpower they have to deal with the goal-line runs of Elliott.
Here is 3rd and 8. They know that the Packers are in 2-deep. They know that the middle is open and that the Packers are man-up with Hyde on Beasley. This is a massive mismatch for the Cowboys and look how easy they can convert this as Hyde can't handle the initial release.
Again, 2-Deep, man under. Beasley gets out on the WR screen and with a pulling Tyron taking out the middle LB who cannot run with Beasley anyway, this one is another big gainer up the sideline.
Finally, the 4th-quarter kill shot that put this out of reach. Play-action to hold them with the running game and then exposing an easy throw mismatch to the pylon. This is Beasley versus Gunter which is basically a safety trying to run with Beasley in a phone booth. Good luck.
Now, as you can see, all of this is based off Green Bay trying to deal with the running game.
Here is the staggering truth. Since 2013, the Cowboys have played the Packers 4 times. In each game, they ran all day and had no issues whatsoever. They ran and ran and ran. They have run the ball with this massive offensive line against the Packers and Dom Capers 99 times in 4 games and have rolled up an absurd 641 yards.
That comes out to 6.48 yards per carry. Oh, and the Cowboys are 1-3 in those 4 games. Now, we could argue whether or not there are mitigating circumstances that explain this, but the point remains that running the ball is key. It is not the only key.
That said, it is interesting that in Week 6, Elliott ran all day out of 12 and 13 personnel. In fact, they ran out of 11 personnel on 9 occasions for 15 yards. No, this was a day for big personnel, and the Cowboys were able to break some open in the 2nd half.
This one is easy. Up the middle and then bounce outside and beat the contain man to the corner and he is out of the gate. There is very little a defense can do against this speed to the outside when they overcommit to the middle.
Here is 12 personnel again. We wonder how much of this changes without Geoff Swaim who was a big part of this day's production. More 11 personnel on Sunday, we assume, which has been the Cowboys' best look for the 2nd half of the year.
One more out of 12 personnel. There is nothing at the 2nd level with the linebackers that should scare the Cowboys at all. The Packers are built for finding big plays, not stopping long drives.
Check out the personnel groupings and chart from that game:
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
The Cowboys offense cannot fall behind. It must start quickly, because a 10-0 Green Bay lead might change all sorts of things in the stadium. It simply must take control early - as in Lambeau, because if it does, the boa constrictor that is the Dallas offense will begin to suffocate the Green Bay ideas.
The offense must convert on 3rd downs and be careful with the football. It is a delicate balance.
Garrett certainly wants to hold the ball and dominate the clock. But, that means long drives. And long drives require 3rd down precision and mistake-free football without penalties and turnovers.
We have showed you some matchup advantages for Sunday and there are several. But, in Dak Prescott's first playoff game, all eyes will be on him to see how this offense executes in these high pressure spots. They know they can do it, they just need to actually do it.
Linehan has some very interesting ideas and matchups that should work against an inferior defense from Green Bay. Tomorrow, we look at Marinelli's decidedly more difficult task.