Before the Green Bay Packers put the finishing touches on their 28-7 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, the defense had to rise to the occasion in the second half.
After the Packers surged to a 14-0 lead, the offense punted on five consecutive possessions. The Cowboys finally broke through, parlaying two long runs into a too-easy touchdown to cut the margin to 14-7. With the game very much up for grabs, Green Bay’s defense slammed the door, just like it’s done so many times the past several weeks. The Cowboys’ next three possessions gained a total of 24 yards and mustered just one first down. Finally, Green Bay’s offense put together the clinching drives to finish the job.
“Obviously, we know the score of the game but we don’t pay attention to that,” outside linebacker Julius Peppers said. “We don’t play the score. We just play each down and each series as they come.”
It was the latest strong performance by the Packers’ defense. Green Bay ranks sixth in the NFL with 18.8 points allowed per game. This is an ascending unit. Over the last five games, the Packers have given up only 15.6 points per game. Over the last seven quarters, the Packers have allowed just seven points.
“I think we feel good overall,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “Obviously, there’s room for improvement each and every week. There’s little plays here or a big play that we’ve given up but I think you have to look at the body of work since really after the bye and look at where we’re at. I’m sure we helped ourselves out in points per game, obviously. We didn’t do ourselves any justice in rush yards but I think we’re doing well. Hopefully that’s enough to get us to where we need to go. At the same time, we’ll continue to improve, we’ll continue to get better. I think it’s very much the same defense you saw last year around this time. Hopefully that’s the case and we limit those big plays and make it a dominant performance rather than giving up a few here and there.”
Three big plays provided the blemish. Cowboys running backs Darren McFadden and Robert Turbin had three runs totaling 117 yards. That constituted 43.3 percent of the offensive production. On the other 48 snaps, the Cowboys averaged 3.19 yards per play.
With Matt Cassel in for injured Tony Romo at quarterback, Dallas’ hope of pulling off an upset rested on a consistent running game. That didn’t happen, though, even with McFadden’s 50-yard run in the first quarter and runs of 45 by McFadden and 22 by Turbin setting up a third-quarter touchdown. Dallas’ other 17 carries gained 54 yards – an average of 3.18 per carry.
That meant a lot of third-and-long situations for Dallas, and the Packers smothered those. The Cowboys converted only 1-of-11 third-down plays. Their first third-down play, a third-and-goal from the 3, was intercepted by Sam Shields as Cassel’s slightly off-target throw glanced off the hands of star receiver Dez Bryant. After Dallas converted a third down early in the second quarter, it went 0-for-8 the rest of the game.
Bryant, meanwhile, caught just one pass for 9 yards. It was the second-worst game of his career, behind only a no-catch game vs. New Orleans during his rookie season of 2010. It was an impressive accomplishment with Shields out with a concussion and first-round pick Damarious Randall shadowing Bryant for the final two-plus quarters.
“Sam did a good job early and probably rattled him a little bit,” cornerback Casey Hayward said. “On film, Cassel really doesn’t come to him as much. He goes to 11 (Cole Beasley) more than Dez on film. I think we did a good job of hitting the quarterback and stopping the run. I know they had a couple big runs but, besides those runs, we contained them. We had a good game plan. When Sam was on him, he executed, when Damarious was on him, he executed, and the safeties did a good job of taking throws away from him, as well.”
This might not be a championship defense but the trend continues to go the right direction. The Packers are on pace yield 302 points – their fewest since giving up 240 in the 2010 championship season.
“That’s the goal,” Peppers said. “That’s the goal is to keep going up and keep getting better as the season gets longer. This is the time of year where we need the arrow to be pointing up. It was a great start of the December football month. We’re looking forward to building on this next week.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.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.