Green Bay’s Rushing Defense
Entering the Week 6 matchup between these teams, the Packers not only led the NFL in rushing defense but they were playing at a historic level in that phase of the game. For the season, Dallas has rushed for about 150 yards per game. At that point in the season, the Packers had allowed 171 rushing yards in four games and 1.99 yards per carry.
Ezekiel Elliott followed his powerhouse offensive line to 157 yards on 28 rushes — a gaudy 5.6-yard average. Dallas finished with 191 rushing yards — 20 more yards than the Packers had allowed in the first four games combined.
Green Bay finished the season with one of the league’s top run defenses — eighth with 94.7 rushing yards per game and 14th with 4.03 yards allowed per carry. The early prowess was key, however: In the final 12 games, Green Bay allowed 90-plus rushing yards eight times, including 120-plus rushing yards on five occasions. In nine of the final 12 games, the opponent averaged at least 4.5 yards per carry. It’s played well at times, though, including against Paul Perkins and the Giants in the Wild Card game and Houston’s Lamar Miller in Week 12.
Veterans Mike Daniels and Letroy Guion are the stalwarts up front. Daniels is one of the top all-around defensive tackles while Guion’s strength is defending the run. The other key linemen are rookies Kenny Clark (first round) and Dean Lowry (fourth round). Their athleticism will be tested against Dallas’ stretch runs.
At inside linebacker, second-year player Jake Ryan has played his best ball down the stretch while rookie Blake Martinez has faded. Martinez lost his job to undersized Joe Thomas, but Thomas is battling a bad back and is better against the pass, anyway. At outside linebacker, Nick Perry (playing with a broken hand) and Datone Jones win on physicality and Clay Matthews wins with nonstop fury. The other outside linebacker, Julius Peppers, is primarily a pass rusher but has stepped up his all-around game of late. Veteran safety Morgan Burnett and second-team All-Pro Ha Ha Clinton-Dix bring physicality and excellent tackling skills when they move to the line of scrimmage.
Dallas’ Rushing Offense
At the beginning of the season, and following the selection of Ezekiel Elliott in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Dallas running game had high expectations. Elliott was the consensus No. 1 running back prospect coming into the draft and had the advantage of playing behind arguably the best offensive line in football.
Things got off to a rough start, however, as he was stifled by the Giants’ run defense in Week 1 to the tune of 20 carries for 51 yards and a goal-line touchdown. Things improved a bit the following week at Washington, with 83 yards on 21 carries. That’s when things began to slow down for him, and the Cowboys’ running game would begin to take off.
Following that game in Washington, Elliott realized he needed to become more patient with his running. Until that point, he was attempting to make a big play and rush for 1,000 yards on every carry. Starting with the Week 3 game against the Bears, he began to let the holes develop in front of him, and then use his elite speed and power to burst through the line.
Elliott would have arguably his best game of the season against the Packers’ No. 1-ranked run defense in Week 6, rushing the ball 28 times for 157 yards. Though he was kept out of the end zone, he was the key to the Cowboys’ offense moving the ball in the hostile Lambeau environment and taking the pressure off of his quarterback and fellow rookie, Dak Prescott.
Flash forward to the end of the season, and the Cowboys have the most potent rushing attack in the NFL, and Elliott sits atop the league with 1,631 and 15 touchdowns.
One of the things that makes Elliott’s season so impressive is the fact that 264 of his 322 carries have come without a lead blocker and him as the lone setback. As the lone setback, he has rushed for 1,397 yards, to the tune of 5.3 yards per carry and nine touchdowns.
Elliott is an absolute workhorse, with the stamina, power and strength to carry the load for his quarterback on any given week. In fact, he ran the ball 23 more times than the next-closest back (LeGarrette Blount), as well as for 313 more yards than Jordan Howard, the league’s second-leading rusher. He was also one of just two running backs in the NFL, along with Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell to average more than 100 yards rushing per game during the season (108.7).
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.