Green Bay’s Passing Offense
Aaron Rodgers had a subpar 2015 season, and those struggles continued through the first nine games of the 2016 season – including a pedestrian 90.8 passer rating in the Week 6 loss to Dallas.
That inconsistent play, however, is ancient history now. During the Packers’ seven-game winning streak, Rodgers is on a remarkable roll. He’s thrown 19 touchdown passes and zero interceptions and fashioned a passer rating of 121.7. In each of the last three games, Rodgers has thrown four touchdown passes with no interceptions. Asked about that during his Wednesday conference call, Dallas coach Jason Garrett had a great line.
“He’s been a roll for the last nine years,” Garrett said.
Can that roll keep going without Jordy Nelson, who reportedly sustained at least two broken ribs against the Giants on Sunday and won’t play against the Cowboys? Rodgers’ troubles last season were rooted in Nelson missing all of last season with a torn ACL. However, the Packers are in a much better position to overcome Nelson’s absence this time.
They showed that against the Giants. Nelson, who finished the regular season with 97 catches for 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns, was on the field for the first 19 minutes. The Packers didn’t even have 19 yards at that point. By game’s end, the Packers piled up 406 yards and 38 points. Rodgers threw for 362 yards, with Davante Adams catching eight passes for 125 yards and one touchdown and Randall Cobb catching five passes for 116 yards and three touchdowns.
What’s the difference compared to last year? Without Nelson in the lineup and without Adams or tight end Richard Rodgers adding much of an explosive element, Cobb had no room to operate. This year, Adams has emerged and put last year’s injury-induced slump in the rear-view mirror. He tied for second in the NFL with 12 touchdown catches and has a great knack for beating press coverage. Jared Cook, who missed the first game against Dallas, has added that explosive element at tight end. He had a gain of 24-plus yards in each of the last three regular-season games. Cobb, while his overall numbers aren’t great, is catching a greater percentage of passes and averaging more yards after the catch.
The offensive line makes it all work. On the first touchdown against New York, Rodgers had 8.15 seconds to throw. He had even longer on a touchdown at Detroit the week before. Left tackle David Bakhtiari was voted a second-team All-Pro, right guard T.J. Lang was selected to his first Pro Bowl and right tackle Bryan Bulaga was worthy of all-star accolades, as well.
Dallas’ Pass Defense
Arguably the biggest matchup to watch on Sunday will be Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ receivers against the Cowboys’ pass defense. It is obviously the Packers’ strongest weapon and it’s also the biggest weakness for the Cowboys.
Unlike 2015, when the Cowboys ranked in the top five in passing yards and passing touchdowns, 2016 has been a bit rougher of ride for the defensive backs. This season, the Cowboys rank near the bottom of the NFL in both of those categories and have recorded only nine interceptions.
Despite having a patchwork defensive line for most of the season, Dallas does rank 13th in the NFL in sacks with 36. Benson Mayowa (6), Maliek Collins (5) and Tyrone Crawford (4.5) lead the team in sacks, but their best pass rusher over the last few weeks has been David Irving.
Irving had a great game earlier in the season against the Packers, with three tackles, three forced fumbles, one sack and consistent pressure against Rodgers. Following that game, however, he effectively just fell off the map until exploding in Weeks 15 and 16 against the Buccaneers and Lions. In those games, he recorded three sacks, hit the quarterback eight times and was a constant force in the pass rush. The Cowboys had been searching all season for a consistent and physically dominant threat in the pass rush, and with the emergence of Irving, they feel as though they have it.
As for the secondary, some of the problems defending the pass can be chalked up to some significant injury problems. Slot Orlando Scandrick, who was thought to be the team’s best corner coming into the season, has been battling hamstring issues all season. He has come away with just one interception and eight passes defended in 12 games. While he forced three fumbles and has two sacks, his overall production has been drastically reduced.
The more pressing injury concern for Dallas has been with cornerback Mo Claiborne. Entering this season, Claiborne was an afterthought with fans, but he quickly established himself as the team’s best cover corner. Claiborne suffered a groin injury against Green Bay earlier this season and hasn’t played since. He was full participation on Thursday, however, and figures to return to the lineup on Sunday.
Brandon Carr has been a mainstay at cornerback, starting all 16 games and tying safety Byron Jones for the team lead with 10 passes defensed. Jones, a freakish athlete, provides flexibility with his ability to play in the slot. He starts at safety alongside Barry Church, who led the team with two interceptions but is at his best against the run. Rookie Anthony Brown replaced an injured Scandrick in the slot against Green Bay and helped limit Cobb to seven catches for 53 yards.