The Green Bay Packers used to dominate through an unstoppable offense and an unbeatable turnover ratio. This year, they've won with an indomitable run defense.
On Sunday, all three of those strengths were broken by the Dallas Cowboys.
Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott thoroughly outplayed two-time MVP counterpart Aaron Rodgers as the Cowboys beat the Packers 30-16 on Sunday at Lambeau Field.
Prescott was 18-of-27 passing for 247 yards and three touchdowns and sensational rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott gouged the NFL’s top-ranked run defense for 157 yards. Meanwhile, Rodgers struggled yet again. While he completed 31 of 42 for 294 yards and one touchdown, he threw one interception and a costly fumble.
Dallas won the turnover battle 4-2, offsetting Green Bay's edges in yards, third downs and time of possession.
"I don't know if I agree with broken," coach Mike McCarthy said. "We were not as clean in the passing game as we like and, frankly, the biggest thing on offense that we want to stay focused on and improve and obviously we have to correct it is turning the ball over. We've had multiple games with multiple turnovers. We're not good enough to win a game turning the ball over four times. It's not part of our fiber. It's not the way we train. It's important as a coach to give it emphasis and we'll continue to do that and have great confidence in our team, our structure that we'll improve in the area of, particularly as a football team, turning this turnover ratio. I don't know where we're at on the season, minus-3 or somewhere in there, that's not cutting it."
The game turned in the final two-and-a-half minutes of the first half. The Packers pushed the ball to the Cowboys’ 38 but Rodgers threw incomplete to Jordy Nelson on third-and-5 and safety Byron Jones deflected a deep pass to Randall Cobb on fourth-and-5. The Packers’ defense held, and rookie Trevor Davis returned the punt 25 yards to set up the offense just shy of midfield. Green Bay couldn’t do a thing with the field position, though, with a first-down drop, a 0-yard completion and a third-down incompletion.
Jacob Schum’s punt stuck Dallas at its 3 with 1:39 left in the half. Armed with three timeouts, the Packers had a chance to great field position with a defensive stand. Instead, after two runs by Elliott gained 9 yards, receiver Lucky Whitehead gained 26 on an end-around. Prescott then decked the Packers with two big plays. First, receiver Terrance Williams beat cornerback LaDarius Gunter with a double-move gain of 42. On the next play, Prescott threw a strike to receiver Brice Butler for a 20-yard touchdown. In a matter of just 34 seconds, the Cowboys had driven 97 yards to take a 17-6 halftime lead.
On Green Bay’s opening drive of the second half, Rodgers threw an interception to safety Barry Church. Dallas turned that into a field goal for a 20-6 lead.
The Packers mounted one of their best drives of the game late in the third quarter, with three completions to receiver/running back Ty Montgomery setting up a first and-goal at the 1. However, Rodgers was stripped by defensive end David Irving on a quarterback draw. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga was in position to recover but was hit by linebacker Sean Lee, with Irving pouncing on the loose ball. Irving forced three fumbles on the day.
Prescott was intercepted by safety Morgan Burnett at Dallas’ 14 but the Packers couldn’t take full advantage. Rodgers threw too high to a wide-open Randall Cobb in the end zone and Irving batted down the third-down pass. Mason Crosby’s 34-yard field goal cut the margin to 20-9.
The Packers' offense spent much of the game in Dallas territory but didn't do nearly enough with those possessions.
"Have a glass of scotch and chill out a little bit, watch the film," was Rodgers' postgame plan. "I’m my biggest critic, and I look at this as finely as I look at every other game and improve. It was close. There were a couple – the one to Randall (Cobb in the end zone) would have been nice to hit, and obviously the fumble down there kills us. I missed Richard (Rodgers for a big play). Other than that, I felt better. I felt my movement was good tonight, I felt the line blocked really well. We’ve got to do a better job of hitting the ones we’re used to hitting."
Prescott struck again. On third-and-1, Dallas receiver Lucky Whitehead lined up as a wing, ran past Gunter and gained 35. Moments later, Beasley lost Gunter for a 4-yard touchdown that extended the Cowboys’ lead to 27-9.
The Packers pulled within 27-16 on Rodgers’ touchdown pass to Randall Cobb. But needing a stop on third-and-5, Prescott beat a six-man blitz with a first-down completion to tight end Jason Witten. Dallas added a field goal to go ahead by 14 points. At that point, Dallas and its top-ranked rushing attack had gained 179 yards on the ground against a Green Bay defense that was No. 1 in the league with a total of 171 rushing yards in four games. It finished with 191.
The Cowboys got off to a tremendous start. They took the opening drive 75 yards for a touchdown, keeping the Packers’ defense off-balance throughout. Prescott hit receiver Cole Beasley for the 1-yard score. Green Bay answered with a field goal before an exchange of turnovers. First, Church forced a fumble on a catch by Jordy Nelson. With Dallas in scoring position, Packers outside linebacker Julius Peppers sacked and stripped Prescott, with inside linebacker Joe Thomas recovering. Green Bay turned that into another field goal, cutting the margin to 7-6 early in the second quarter.
Beasley was the key player on Dallas’ next scoring drive. First, he beat defensive back Micah Hyde for a gain of 15 on third-and-8. Prescott to Beasley on third-and-3, with cornerback Demetri Goodson getting there too soon and being flagged for interference. A field goal made it 10-6.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.