World’s Best Preview: Battle of the Big Boys for Packers, Cowboys

It will be strength vs. strength when Dallas' elite offensive line faces Green Bay's defensive front. Plus, Sam Shields is playing like an elite corner, Nelson and Romo for MVP, ironman Jason Witten, baby-sitting Jason Garrett, third-down follies and much more in a preview overflowing with stats, notes and quotes we guarantee you won't find anywhere else.

The Dallas Cowboys’ star-studded offensive line, in the understated words of Green Bay defensive tackle Mike Daniels, “can get the job done.”

So, too, can the Daniels-led Packers defensive front.

That battle in the trenches will highlight Sunday’s game at Lambeau Field.

The Cowboys have dedicated a vast amount of resources to build their offensive line. Left tackle Tyron Smith was the No. 9 pick of the 2011 draft. Center Travis Frederick was the No. 31 pick of the 2013 draft. Right guard Zach Martin was the No. 16 pick of the 2014 draft. Left guard La’el Collins, an undrafted rookie, might have been a top-10 pick had he not been linked to a double homicide just before the draft.

That’s four first-round talents up front. And they play like it.

If the Cowboys have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, the Packers have one of the better defensive lines. The key to Sunday’s game might be this powerful matchup in the trenches.

“When they watch tape, they’ve got respect for them and they play hard,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “You always have to be on your toes. There’s going to be times when they’re going to win, there’s going to be times when we’re going to win. That’s what happens with a good O-line (vs.) D-line matchup.”

Daniels, who is the motor that drives Green Bay’s defensive line, certainly isn’t in awe of the Cowboys’ line pedigree.

“I go against Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang in OTAs, camp. I’m prepared for anybody,” Daniels said.

Led by Trgovac’s unit, Green Bay fields one of the league’s most underrated run defenses. While the Packers rank 20th against the run (111.8 yards per game) and 19th in yards per carry (4.17), those numbers are inflated by poor performances vs. Chicago in Week 1 and Denver in Week 8, and a 159-yard performance in Week 5 by St. Louis’ Todd Gurley that looks bad only because of a 55-yard run after the outcome had been decided. Strong run defense has been a starting point in Green Bay ranking sixth with 19.8 points allowed per game.

The return of B.J. Raji has been huge. After missing last season with a torn biceps, opponents are averaging just 3.33 yards per carry with Raji in the game, according to league data. He is flanked in the base defense by Daniels and up-and-coming big man Mike Pennel. Pro Football Focus has a stat called “run stops” that mirrors Green Bay’s win-loss grading system, with, for instance, a solo tackle on a first-and-10 play that gains 3 yards or less being called a “run stop” by PFF and a “win” by the Packers. Of the 58 defensive ends (3-4 scheme) who play at least 25 percent of the run snaps, Pennel is tied for fourth and Daniels is tied for ninth in PFF’s run-stop percentage. Letroy Guion and Datone Jones provide depth and flexibility for Trgovac and defensive coordinator Dom Capers.

With that quintet leading the charge, the Packers’ defense has been on the attack. Green Bay has recorded 69 tackles for losses, putting it on pace for 92 this season. Under Capers, the Packers’ best season was 2009, when they had 92 tackles for losses. From 2009 through 2014, the average was 74.5.

“We’ve always emphasized our release moves and getting off blocks but we’ve really stepped up every day working drills with getting off blocks and releasing off blocks,” Trgovac said. “Every drill incorporates that. Not that we didn’t emphasize that before but I think we’ve put an added emphasis on it. Then we’ve got players like Mike, who can get off a block and tackle a guy in the backfield. B.J.’s got quickness to get off a block. We’re not doing much different on defense, it’s just the emphasis we’ve put on getting off blocks. That was one of our big things from a year ago was ‘1 less yard’ — trying to hold that running back to 1 less yard. That’s a big difference.”

THE MVPs

Carolina’s Cam Newton, New England’s Tom Brady and Arizona’s Carson Palmer are the leading candidates to wrest away the NFL’s MVP crown from Aaron Rodgers.

Jordy Nelson and Tony Romo won’t be in that conversation but their value is evident through their absence.

Last year, the Packers beat the Cowboys 26-21 in a divisional playoff game at Lambeau Field. The Packers had Nelson, who was coming off one of the most productive seasons by a receiver in NFL history. The Cowboys had Romo, who actually beat out Rodgers to win the NFL passer rating crown.

Because of injuries, neither player will be in action in Sunday’s rematch. Both offenses have felt the pain of slogging through their seasons without premier weapons.

Without Nelson, the Packers are scoring 24.1 points per game -- about a touchdown less per game than last year’s league-leading average of 30.4. During their recent stretch of four losses in five games, Green Bay averaged just 19.6 points per game. Rodgers’ passer rating is down about 15 points and he’s averaging about 1.5 yards less per attempt vs. 2014.

“This year, as opposed to some of the other years, I think we’re continuing to work on our identity throughout the year,” Rodgers said. “A lot of that unfortunately is due to an injury to a key player in the preseason. We’ve been trying to find that balance on offense and guys to pick up the slack. We’ve had a lot of injuries at our skill positions that have made it tough to get that consistency every week. we’ve got to get our guys back. We’ve got to build on some of the stuff we did in the second half last week, and be more consistent.”

With Romo playing at an MVP level last year, Dallas finished fifth with 29.2 points per game. This season, with Romo sidelined twice by a broken collarbone, the Cowboys enter this game ranked 29th with 18.6 points per game. Romo started the first two games, with Dallas winning both. It lost the next seven with Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel at quarterback. Romo returned to beat Miami but he broke his collarbone again during a Thanksgiving loss to Carolina. Finally, the Cowboys won a game without Romo last week at Washington, bringing the total to 3-1 with Romo and 1-7 without him.

Still, thanks to Dallas’ home in the pathetic NFC East, it’s only a game out of first place.

“It’s not the year we wanted as far as the wins and losses, but this is a league where that happens,” tight end Jason Witten said in a conference call. “No greater example than Green Bay’s game the other night against Detroit. Just stay with it. We’re fortunate to be 4-8 and to be one game back with four games to go. We have to realize what kind of opportunity we have. We can reflect back on all the other games when it’s over but right now we have an opportunity to get in the playoffs and win our division. We have a tough task. We won that game Monday night but still feel like we can play better football, and we’re going to need it come Sunday.”

SHIELDS VS. BRYANT

Sam Shields was being paid like a No. 1 cornerback. When the Packers allowed Tramon Williams and Davon House to depart in free agency, the pressure was on Shields to perform like a No. 1 cornerback.

Shields has done just that. Last week, Shields was asked to shadow Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, who is one of the best receivers in NFL history. Shields was up to the challenge, with Johnson limited to three catches in eight targets for 44 yards. It took every inch of Johnson’s 6-foot-5 frame to haul in a 17-yard touchdown along the sideline in the first quarter.

The next challenge comes Sunday against Dallas’ Dez Bryant.

“When I get those chances, I’m willing to take them and I’m ready. It's either going to break me or make me,” Shields said with a laugh. “I’m ready for the challenge.”

Entering the season, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt thought Shields had a chance to join the short list of the game’s top cornerbacks. Whitt hasn’t had time to compare Shields with his peers around the league but said Shields is “playing at a very high level” entering the stretch run.

“He’s played really well this year,” Whitt said. “Last year, I thought there were four guys that really separated themselves. This year, there’s probably only two guys that have separated themselves from everybody else – (Carolina’s Josh) Norman and (Seattle’s Richard) Sherman. Then there’s everybody else. I think Sam, especially coverage-wise, has covered as good as anybody in the league. The tackling needs to get better. I know the Pro Bowl’s coming up. Is he deserving? Yes, but there’s probably 16 corners that are deserving.”

Becoming a Pro Bowl player at cornerback means coming up big week after week after week against a gauntlet of star receivers. Take this five-game stretch, for instance, with the Packers facing Chicago’s Alshon Jeffery, Detroit’s Johnson, Dallas’ Bryant, Oakland’s Amari Cooper and Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald.

Other than the opener against Chicago and the Week 6 game against the pinpoint-accurate passing of San Diego’s Philip Rivers, Shields has been superb. While Whitt cringes at PFF’s numbers because there’s no way those analysts can be sure of coverage assignments, that statistical service has Shields allowing 26.8 receiving yards in his other nine games.  The touchdown against Johnson was the first allowed by Shields this season.

“I don’t talk about it – I let my play speak for itself,” Shields said of being considered an elite cornerback. “That day will come. I just want to do my job and help my team win.”

Shields will be in the spotlight against Bryant on Sunday. In last year’s playoff game, Bryant and Shields were part of one of the most controversial plays of the year. With Bryant’s late-game catch waved off, which could have put Dallas just 1 yard from the go-ahead score with about 4 minutes remaining, Bryant was limited to three receptions for 38 yards.

Regardless of who’s at quarterback, Shields knows he’s facing a big challenge.

Or, better put, another big challenge.

“Man, just first of all, just going to get the ball,” Shields said about the strength of Bryant’s game. “You see that each week, especially on the play with me, him getting up first, going up to get the ball at the highest point. That’s one of things that he's good at. (With) his quickness, you've got to be on. Everything's got to be crisp with him. Technique-wise, everything, because he's real quick.”

INSIDE THE COWBOYS

— Witten is Mr. Milestone. Two weeks ago vs. Carolina, he surpassed 11,000 career receiving yards. Last week vs. Washington, he surpassed 1,000 career catches. And on Sunday, he will play in his 200th consecutive game.

“You always pride yourself in being able to play,” Witten said. “I never said that I was ever trying to prove to be a tough guy. I just think that’s kind of Line 1 to play. You’ve got to be tough, mentally and physically. This is a hard game. I have so much respect for what guys put themselves through week in and week out to get back and ready to go and play on Sunday.”

Among tight ends in NFL history, Witten trails only Tony Gonzalez in receptions and yards. Gonzalez finished his career with 1,325 receptions for 15,127 yards. Witten is well back, with 1,003 receptions for 11,055 yards. However, Witten reached 1,000 career receptions in four fewer games than Gonzalez.

“What an elite group to be able to join,” said Witten, who ranks 10th all-time in receptions. “I’m honored and humbled to be in the mix with that list of guys and some of the best players to play the game and, obviously, the best tight end in Tony. I’m just thrilled to join them. I think back to all the great teammates and great coaches I had around me to help me get to that point.”

With Romo missing the bulk of the season, Bryant having missed five games and reigning NFL rushing champion DeMarco Murray leaving for Philadelphia in free agency, it’s been up to Witten to carry the load. He has a team-high 60 receptions. Witten now has 12 seasons of 60-plus catches. Only Jerry Rice (17) and Gonzalez (15) have more. If Witten scores against the Packers, he will become the fifth tight end in NFL history to record 60 career touchdowns.

“He does a great job of obviously getting open,” Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said. “He has good body control. He knows how to lean into defenders, getting them to open their hips. He’s just a very good possession receiver. That’s not to take anything away from him. I wouldn’t say that’s not a compliment. He’s the type of guy who will hook up across the middle and have those catches where, at the end of the day, he has, shoot, 60, 80 yards on seven to 10 catches. He’s just one of those guys who’s obviously a comfort for not only Romo but Cassel, in which you know he’s going to be open and you know he’s going to make those catches.”

— When the Packers beat the Cowboys in the playoffs last season, Dallas was without its best defensive player, with linebacker Sean Lee missing the entire year with a torn ACL. Lee is back and is playing as well as ever. Playing on the weak side in Dallas’ 4-3 scheme, Lee leads the team with 112 tackles. He’s added two sacks, eight tackles for losses, one interception and four passes defensed. In his last two games vs. Carolina and Washington, Lee piled up 30 tackles. Since entering the league as a second-round pick in 2010, he has 12 interceptions – most among all linebackers. That’s an amazing feat considering he missed all 16 games last season, five games in 2011 and 10 games in 2012.

“Sean’s a really good football player and, unfortunately, he’s dealt with some injuries throughout his career but, whenever he’s played for us, he’s played at a very high level,” Dallas coach Jason Garrett said in his conference call. “He has a lot of the same kind of traits that Jason Witten has. You know, his commitment to do everything the right way at the highest level is really inspirational to all of us. Came back from an injury, did everything he could to get himself right and ready to play physically and his preparation during the week is off the charts. And then his performance when the game starts is just week-in and week-out as good as any ‘backer in the league, in my opinion. I think we saw that the other night in the ballgame against Washington, just made so many plays in the game. I think he had 13 tackles, was around the ball all night long. He’s just a heck of a good football player and a great leader for our team and a great example for everybody else.”

— Garrett deserves his coaching salary plus a little extra for baby-sitting. There was the notorious signing of defensive end Greg Hardy, who has been incredibly productive but brings an enormous amount of baggage stemming from what amounted to a 19-game suspension for a domestic-abuse case. Hardy and the always-emotional Bryant got into a shouting match on the sideline during an October game. Running back Joseph Randle, who started the first six games of the season before he was released, has a lengthy legal history, as well. Throw in the injury to Romo and ever-present owner Jerry Jones, and it’s been quite a challenge for the fifth-year coach to maintain his sunny disposition.

“Oh, we love our football team,” Garrett said. “We’re so fortunate as coaches to come here every day and work with these guys and the relentless spirit and the fight that our team has and the willingness to prepare every week and then play the way they play each Sunday is something that’s inspirational to us. So, we embrace the opportunity to come in and coach them. We’ve got great football character and great personal character on this team. Sometimes different things happen over the course of the year that you have to be mentally tough enough individually and collectively as a team to work your way through, up and around, and that’s what we’ve tried to do during the course of the season up to this point and we’re excited about the opportunities going forward.”

— For all the focus on Bryant and Witten, a key matchup for Green Bay will be defending against slot receiver Cole Beasley. The 5-foot-8, 180-pounder matched his career high with 39 receptions and is approaching his career high with 392 yards. He caught at least four passes in each of the first six games, then had a nine-catch, two-touchdown performance vs. Philadelphia last month. Capers called him a “jitterbug,” which shows up in his YAC numbers. Among wide receivers with at least 25 catches, he ranks fifth with 6.4 yards after the catch per catch.

“He’s a good player. Really good player,” said cornerback Casey Hayward, who figures to see plenty of Beasley. “He flashes a lot. It seems like he’s always open because he is. He’s so quick out of his routes. You think you’re covering him and he’ll put his foot in and go the opposite way. Cassel’s really comfortable throwing him the ball. I have to do a good job – not just me. We have to do a good job of trying to contain their skill guys. They have an arsenal of weapons.”

HISTORY LESSONS

— With the holidays approaching, Green Bay has enjoyed the gift of winning in December. Under coach Mike McCarthy, the Packers are 27-12 in December, with that .692 winning percentage ranking No. 1 in the NFC. At home, Green Bay is 17-3, including 13-1 in its last 14.

Rodgers has been a December juggernaut, especially at Lambeau Field. He boasts a career record of 12-1, with the lone loss coming in his first December start. In the 13 games, he’s thrown for 3,723 yards with 32 touchdowns, five interceptions and a passer rating of 117.3.

In all December games, Rodgers is 18-9 with 55 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and a 102.9 rating. Among quarterbacks with at least 100 career December passes, Don Horn, of all people, has the all-time best rating. The man who was supposed to replace Bart Starr had a 107.5 rating in three Decembers. Russell Wilson is second at 103.9, followed by Rodgers.

“The playoffs are here,” Rodgers said. “Each of these games is so important for seeding and for our division. The early games can kind of set you up for the ability to have things in place, but we obviously didn’t do that in the second quarter of our season. So, we’re going to have to fight and claw to kind of get in this thing, and all of our games are going to be very important to achieving that first goal.”

— Garrett, who is 46-40 as Dallas’ coach but 0-2 vs. Green Bay, spent 13 seasons as a quarterback for the Cowboys, Giants, Buccaneers and Dolphins. His most memorable game came in an infamous Thanksgiving game against the Packers in Dallas in 1994. Garrett completed 15-of-26 passes for 311 yards and two touchdowns as Dallas rallied from a 24-13 third-quarter deficit to beat Green Bay 42-31.

What Garrett couldn’t do was duplicate Rodgers’ Hail Mary.

“I’ve always wanted to do that,” Garrett said. “All my Hail Marys probably happened inside the 50-yard line. But for him to extend that play and throw the ball that he did and them to come back in that ballgame, real testament to the kind of team that they are. He’s the leader of that group and made the critical plays at the critical moment. It’s certainly a play people will be talking about for a long, long time.”

— Based on all-time winning percentage, these are the heaviest of heavyweights. Dallas ranks No. 1 all-time with a .571 winning percentage, followed by Chicago at .570 and Green Bay at .567.

How dominant has Dallas been over the years? Among NFC teams, only San Francisco has a winning record against the Cowboys with a combined regular-season/postseason record of 17-16-1. Green Bay is 16-16 — 13-12 in the regular season and 3-4 in the playoffs. The Packers have won four in a row in the series.

“I don’t know that guys bring a lot of stuff with them from past games,” Garrett said of last year’s playoff loss. “I do think it’s important to focus on what we need to do today to get ready for Sunday. We have great respect for their organization, for the coaching staff and for their football team. We know what the challenges are and that’s really where our focus needs to be.”

— Cassel has had his moments in his career, such as going 10-5 in place of Tom Brady with New England in 2008 and 10-5 with 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions for the Chiefs in 2010. That seems like a lifetime ago, though. According to STATS, Cassel hasn’t won back-to-back starts since the middle of the 2011 season.

NUMBERS WORTH NOTING

— Last Thursday at Detroit, the Packers faced three third-and-1 situations. On the opening possession of the game, James Starks lost a yard. Late in the first half, Starks was stopped for no gain. Trailing 23-14 with about 6 minutes to go, Starks dropped a pass.

That’s 0-for-3 in what should be a relatively easy conversion.

“It’s got to be a mind-set,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “A run’s called, you’ve got to get leverage, you’ve got to get under people, you’ve got to move people. That’s the bottom line. Our job is move people. Third-and-1, you’ve got to move people and make it easy for the running back to get a yard.”

For the season, Green Bay is 11-of-22 on third-and-1, with that 50 percent success rate tied for 30th. For perspective, the league average is 66 percent. Broken down, the Packers are 8-of-15 on runs and 3-of-7 on passes. Perhaps the Packers should use John Kuhn more. He’s 22-of-29 (75.9 percent) for his career on third-and-1 runs.

If you think Green Bay’s been bad, it could always be worse. Dallas is 7-of-17, for a league-worst 41.1 percent.

— Over the last four weeks, the Packers’ defense ranks seventh in points allowed (17.8 per game), eighth in total defense (306.3 yards per game) and eighth against the run (85.3 yards per game).

“I always hope we’re ascending,” Capers said. “The first quarter against Detroit, when you’re down 17-0, you’re not feeling good but I thought from that point on that they came on. I’m hoping that over the next four games that you see us ascend and do the things that good defenses do in the month of December. I think for the most part we’ve done that in the past. I’ve seen us ascend and our play get better in the month of December. Part of it is you’re working a lot of young guys in there and they gain experience. Some of our young guys have gained experience and you expect them to play more like veterans as you get into this month of December.”

— After Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey booted a 54-yard field goal on the final play of the game to beat Washington on Monday night, ESPN commentator Jon Gruden said Bailey had cemented his Pro Bowl selection.

“He’s a good kicker, obviously,” Packers special teams coordiantor Ron Zook said. “They’re all good. There’s only 32 of them in the world. I did text Jon Gruden; he had him in the Pro Bowl Monday night. He’s a good kicker, though. No question, he’s done a good job but our kicker’s not too bad, either.”

Yes, Mason Crosby is good, but Bailey is phenomenal. He is 25-of-26 on field goals this season. For his career, he has made 90.8 percent of his field-goal attempts — the best in NFL history. In his fourth season, he’s booted 10 game-winning field goals in the final 2 minutes of regulation or overtime.

— Beyond the obvious of losing Romo, why are the Cowboys 4-8 after finishing 12-4 last season? Look no further than turnovers. In 2014, Dallas ranked third in the league with 31 takeaways and was plus-7 in interceptions. This year, Dallas has a league-low eight takeaways and is minus-8 in interceptions, leading to a league-worst minus-14 turnover ratio.

That bodes well for Green Bay. The Packers have a league-low nine giveaways and Rodgers hasn’t thrown an interception in five games vs. Dallas. McCarthy, however, is concerned about the conditions with a rainy forecast. The Packers were minus-2 in turnovers during a rainy Thanksgiving loss to Chicago.

FOUR-POINT STANCE

— Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli isn’t known for blitzing. On Monday night, however, he sent 12 blitzes toward Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins. The tactic worked like a charm, with Cousins completing four passes for just 16 yards while getting sacked twice. Compare that blitz rate of 34.2 percent to the previous three games, when Marinelli blitzed 19.4 percent of the time.

“They were very aggressive,” Rodgers said. “They give you a lot of different type of looks. We’ll be ready for all that stuff. The pressure worked, and a lot of times when the pressure works, they keep it going the next week. We’ll have to be ready for that.”

Bring it on, McCarthy said. This season, according to Pro Football Focus, Rodgers’ rating when blitzed is 92.2. According to STATS, Rodgers ranked No. 1 against the blitz in 2014 (130.4) and from 2008 through 2014 (110.7).

“We always spend a lot of time on the blitz. It’s a philosophy of ours,” McCarthy said. “We prefer when people blitz us. I think our quarterback rating and production under pressure reflects that. We’ve gone back and dug up pressures in the past when you run into a coordinator that may not have shown a lot of blitzes to that point. Regardless of who we play, we basically spend about the same amount of time on pressure because it’s obviously a big-play opportunity, the defense is thinking, but from an offensive standpoint we think it’s a big opportunity for us.”

— The strength of Dallas’ special teams runs beyond Bailey. Punter Chris Jones ranks sixth with a net average of 42.2 yards. (Green Bay’s Tim Masthay is 21st with a net of 39.0, which would tie his team record, set in 2013). Plus, Lucky Whitehead has provided a spark on returns. He had a 79-yard kickoff return vs. Philadelphia and set up Dallas’ winning field goal vs. Washington with a 46-yard runback, giving him a season average of 35.7 yards. He’ll challenge Green Bay’s kickoff-coverage unit, which ranks 25th with an opponent average of 26.4 yards per return. That unit gave up a 104-yarder vs. Detroit’s Ameer Abdullah in Week 10 and a 52-yarder to Minnesota’s Cordarrelle Patterson in Week 11. Abdullah had returns of 26 and 25 yards last week.

“I think we got back last week a little bit,” Zook said. “We did, we had a couple of big returns. You give up a big return like in the first Detroit game, you only have to give up one, just like you only have to get one to get your stats where you want them. You’re right, earlier in the year we did cover extremely well. We’ve probably spent as much time on that as anything with the exception of the punt team. As you get later in the year, you’ve really got to (prepare mentally) because you don’t have the time on the field. You have to cut back a little bit so you don’t get quite as much individual time. A lot of it’s mental. We’ve come up with some things in the meeting room where we’re forcing them to concentrate on the things that we need to concentrate on in each phase.”

— Green Bay had been dominant at Lambeau until dropping back-to-back home games to Detroit and Chicago. The Cowboys are 3-3 on the road this season and went undefeated away from Dallas last year until losing to the Packers in the playoffs.

“We need to win and you do that by playing better,” McCarthy said. “We haven’t played our best football the last two times we played in front of our crowd. Our crowd has stepped up. It’s clearly a different environment this year and last year than it’s been in the past, and that’s a credit to our organization. At the end of the day, it’s about football, it’s about what you do between the lines. Usually great crowds follow a good football team.”

— Even without Romo and Murray, the Cowboys lead the league with an average time of possession of 32:36. The Packers are 4-0 when they win the time-of-possession battle. During their recent slump of four losses in five games, they lost the time-of-possession battle in each of the losses before possessing the ball for almost 27 minutes in last week’s win at Detroit.

Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.



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