2015 NFL Playoffs: Cowboys at Packers Preview

The 2015 NFL Playoffs roll on with a divisional round matchup between Tony Romo’s Dallas Cowboys and Aaron Rodgers’ Green Bay Packers. The Cowboys at Packers preview has what to look for on game day.

The Matchup

WHO: Dallas Cowboys (12-4 – #3 Seed) vs. Green Bay Packers (12-4 – #2 Seed)

WHEN: Sunday, January 11 – 1:05 p.m. EST (FOX)

WHERE: Lambeau Field – Green Bay, Wisconsin

Aaron Rodgers looks to continue his assault on NFL defenses as he and the Green Bay Packers clash with the Dallas Cowboys in the Divisional Round. Not to be confused with the Ice Bowl, this rematch of the 1967 NFL Championship should be played under balmier conditions with a forecast temperature of 14 degrees at kickoff and no precipitation expected. The Cowboys, coming off a much-maligned victory against the Detroit Lions, hope to advance past the host Packers, coming off a bye week. This projects as a high-scoring affair, with the winner likely being the last team to have the ball.

When Dallas Has the Football

Dallas’ Passing Game against Green Bay’s Defense

If there were ever a game in which Tony Romo shook off the “choker” label, it was Sunday’s win over the Lions. Regardless of controversial defensive penalty flags, Romo stepped up when Dallas needed him most – and in the process he etched his name firmly into Cowboys’ postseason lore.

The first critical play for Dallas came on 4th and 6 with 6:00 remaining in the fourth quarter. With the ball on the Detroit 42-yard line, Romo sets up with trips to his right, Dez Bryant isolated to his left, and DeMarco Murray in the backfield:

The Lions show man coverage with Cover 2 over the top. Prior to the play, Romo steps off his spot in the shotgun and appears to audible to a different play. On the snap, Bryant and the two outside receivers on the opposite side run go routes, while Murray runs a flare into the left flat. This leaves the middle of the field wide open for Jason Witten who runs three yards past the sticks and jukes to his right. James Ihedigbo (#32) bites on the fake, sliding towards the right hash. Witten pivots back to his left and catches an easy 9-yard toss from Romo that he stretches into a 21-yard completion:

While all eyes watched Bryant on the go route, Witten was left one-on-one with a safety.

Later in the drive, Romo displayed his resourcefulness, utilizing every inch of the pocket while finding Terrance Williams in the end zone for the game-winner:

CowboysTD1

The Cowboys set up in the same formation as earlier – trips right with Bryant isolated to the left and Murray in the backfield. Bryant runs a crossing route through the back of the end zone, while the two inside receivers on the right run fade routes at different depths and Murray runs a quick out to the left.

But the star of this play is Williams, who runs a beautiful route. On the snap, he delays slightly as he runs a slow drag for several yards. Once the two inside receivers clear, he turns upfield before breaking across the end zone on a crossing route. After seeing Romo scrambling in the pocket, he breaks off his route and comes back to the center of the field, finally catching the ball just out of the reach of two defenders:

With these two plays, Romo erased many of the doubts that have followed him throughout his career. But for his heroics to stand next to those of greats such as Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach, Romo will need to repeat his performance against a weak Packers defense and keep the Cowboys on a path to the Super Bowl.

Whether Romo gets a full opportunity to do so depends largely on the protection he receives against the Packers. The blueprint for beating Dallas has been established: Washington, Arizona, Philadelphia and Detroit all deployed a heavy dose of blitzes to confuse the Cowboys’ young offensive line. This led to Romo – and Brandon Weeden – getting pressured heavily and producing uneven results.

Green Bay may not have one of the league’s best defenses ‒ the Packers ranked just above the Cowboys in both yards and points allowed per game ‒ but they do emphasize the blitz, ranking fifth in the NFL while blitzing on 37.1% of their defensive plays. This could spell trouble for the Dallas passing game unless preemptive tactics counter such attacks. The Cowboys may look to a heavy dose of screens as a way to slow down the Packer rush early in the game.

Dallas’ Running Game against Green Bay’s Defense

The Cowboys’ running game looms crucial to their strategy this weekend. They need to control the clock and keep Rodgers on the sideline to minimize their defensive exposure to Green Bay’s passing attack. Green Bay allowed 1,919 yards on the ground (ranked 23rd overall), 4.3 yards per carry (20th) and 119.9 yards per game (23rd), suggesting a major vulnerability to Dallas’s second-ranked rushing attack.

The Cowboys employ a power-running scheme, which they prominently displayed against the Lions:

On the first play of the game against the vaunted Detroit front four, the Cowboys did exactly what one would expect – they put in a heavy set with two tight ends, then ran the ball right up the gut. Motioning Witten pre-snap, Romo handed the ball to Murray off the left guard for a 1-yard gain behind three double-teams:

Some teams might be discouraged by such ineffectiveness to start the game. Not the Cowboys. They ran Murray 18 more times, picking up a total of 75 yards on the ground, including this 18-yard rumble later in the game:

Dallas once again loads up the formation with a tight end and wide receiver closely bunched, and again runs off the left tackle behind three double-teams. Murray finds plenty of running room and, after shedding a tackle, finally gets dragged down deep in the Detroit secondary.

Murray should see much more room to maneuver against the Packers. Look for the Cowboys to ride Murray hard, as he led the league in carries during the regular season with 24.5 per game.

When Green Bay Has the Football

Green Bay’s Passing Game against Dallas’ Defense

The Packer aerial attack features the best quarterback in the NFL. Aaron Rodgers can make any throw in any situation, and his understanding of the Green Bay offense coupled with this skill makes him great. What makes him the best at his position is the athleticism to keep a play alive long after other quarterbacks may have gone down, scrambled, or thrown the ball away – though, he is suffering from a lingering calf issue that may sap some of his mobility.

Against the New England Patriots earlier this year, Rodgers matched up with an improved secondary looking to prove its worth. From the Green Bay 21-yard line, Rodgers dropped back to pass and saw this:

Circled in yellow are four receivers in the pattern, all covered tightly by at least one defender, with two receivers bracketed by double-teams. The Patriots adopt a Cover 1 look over the top with a zone underneath and man coverage on the outside, and the initial coverage is outstanding. The QB also faces pressure from a New England defensive end coming around the edge. So what does Rodgers do? He slides to his left and buys time:

Now near the left numbers, Rodgers looks upfield and spots Davante Adams cutting for the left sideline after breaking free of his man. Rodgers fires an off-balance throw 43 yards and hits Adams just as he reaches the sideline for a big gain.

Obviously if Rodgers is this good when hurried, he is elite with time to survey the field and set his feet. But his receivers help his cause by running terrific routes in a varied offensive scheme:

Rodgers sets up in the shotgun with tight twins on each side. The right side sees a crossing formation, but Rodgers’ first read is to the left where he has both receivers running chair routes up the sideline. These routes, also known as “out-and-ups,” are double moves hoping to entice over-pursuit by the cornerback on the first move. Rodgers is simply looking for the open receiver between these two options:

New England covers the initial out-moves well, mirroring the receivers closely. However, Logan Ryan breaks to the flat and leaves himself out of position for the double move:

Ryan is beaten cleanly and yields another big gain down the left sideline. Rodgers places the ball perfectly again, hitting the receiver in stride.

Dallas struggled defending the pass this year, giving up the 7th-most yards (4,031) and racking the 5th-fewest sacks in the league (28). They counter with a ball-hawking secondary that picked off 18 passes this season (tied for 7th). This represents a weakness for the Cowboys, and a major reason the offense must keep Rodgers and his squadron of receivers off the field.

Green Bay’s Running Game against Dallas’ Defense

The Packers rush less often than the Cowboys, with 73 fewer attempts on the season, but they feature a similar power running game. Eddie Lacy, the main back with 246 carries for 1,136 yards in the regular season, runs with authority and can punish a defense. The Packers use James Starks to spell Lacy, and if healthy, Rodgers is a threat to run as well, with 269 yards on the season.

Unlike Dallas, Green Bay eschews heavy packages but will still employ a large number of double teams at the point of attack:

Here, Green Bay doubles the two interior linemen for the Patriots while handing off to Lacy, aimed at the A gap. There is nothing deceptive in this approach, and the Packers rely on the strength of their line more than trickery to move the ball on the ground. They also employ zone blocking schemes on outside runs, bulldozing anything in their way:

In this instance, the entire Green Bay line slides to its right, allowing Lacy to choose his hole based on the best option. While less aggressive than what they showed earlier, it still relies on strength as opposed to athleticism.

The Cowboys are average at defending the run, giving up 4.2 yards per carry on the season (16th in the NFL). While it may be possible for Green Bay to move the ball on the ground, the Packers clearly prefer to attack through the air given the high-end weaponry at their disposal. The running game will serve as a change of pace, and the Packers should pick up yardage on the ground.

Prediction

Dallas gets outmatched by the superior firepower of the Green Bay attack and, despite a valiant effort from Romo, the Cowboys go down.

Green Bay 31, Dallas 24

Luis Sotelo contributed to this article.

Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.

Chuck Zodda knows the importance of staying in your lane, how to fake a punt return, thehumanity of punters, proper placekicking technique and the Jets.

All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind.

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