After three luxurious weeks playing at home, the Packers hit the road for one of the toughest games on the 2019 schedule, but there’s reason for hope that the team is catching the Cowboys at a good time.
On paper, it looks like the Pack is up against it. No Davante Adams. No Jamaal Williams. No Tony Brown. Kevin King’s status is up in the air, though he was upgraded on Saturday from doubtful to questionable, providing hope that the groin injury has healed enough that he can get on the field–likely to cover the speedy Michael Gallup, who returns after missing the last two with a knee injury.
But the Cowboys are missing maybe their most important player, besides Dak: left tackle Tyron Smith is out with an ankle injury and that is a huge loss. As composed, confident and competent Dak is, he’s been a different player without Smith. In four games, the Cowboys have failed to score more than 12 points and Dak’s passer rating is 29th in the league. So there is opportunity for the Pack’s defense–but of course it all starts with containing Zeke.
Mike Pettine’s unit has been hearing for ten days that they can’t stop the run. Over the last three weeks, Dalvin Cook, and the Broncos’ and Eagles’ two-headed attacks have feasted on the Pack’s rush defense, so you know it’s been a major point of emphasis in the classroom and the practice field. The unit is healthier: Za’Darius Smith is healed from the knee injury that bothered him in the last game and there’s a good chance DT Montravius Adams returns after missing the last two. Kenny Clark had a rare off game against Philly’s talented offensive line. He’ll be ready to atone against Travis Frederick, who has played nothing like he did a couple of years ago. Right tackle La’el Collins returned to practice Friday and appears poised to keep his starting streak intact, but he’s not 100 percent. So there’s reason to believe the Pack’s front seven can turn the tide in this matchup.
With Smith out, offensive coordinator Kellen Collins knows the pass rush will be coming; he also knows that he has the perfect weapon in Elliott, who was held to just 35 yards rushing in New Orleans last week. The Pack’s defense must contain him on first down, to put Dallas into situations where Dak needs to throw. Getting favorable down and distance on second and third down will keep them from attacking with play action, where Prescott is lethal.
If King can’t go, Tramon Williams will be called on to stay with Gallup, who was the Cowboys’ top receiver in the first two games. You have to think Jaire Alexander will be tasked with hanging with Amari Cooper all afternoon. You also have to think Dallas will look to get the ball in Randall Cobb’s hands. If Williams is on the outside, Josh Jackson will likely get the call to handle Cobb in the slot. That’s a matchup to watch. Zeke will likely get his 100 yards. The key will be to make him work for it, stay away from big plays and to get off the field on third downs.
So what do we expect the Pack’s offense to look like without Adams? Does one guy step up or will it take everyone to step up their game? We know this: Aaron Rodgers loves to play in the house that Jerry built. He won his Super Bowl MVP there. He delivered the miraculous pass to Jared Cook to win a playoff game there and he led the furious comeback win in 2017, a week before Anthony Barr ended his season. Rodger’s is 7-1 against the Cowboys and he will need another one of those performances to get the Pack to 4-1.
It will make things a lot easier on Rodgers if the Packers can run the football. The last time they played there, in that 2017 win, Aaron Jones went toe to toe with Elliott and finished with 125 yards in his coming out party. The Pack’s running game has yet to get untracked, and this would be the ideal time to do it, on a day when their best play maker is in street clothes.
Marquez Valdez-Scantling will step into Adams’ role, but I don’t expect him to get double digit targets. I see Rodgers spreading it around, with Jake Kumerow, whose shoulder has healed, playing the slot receiver spot and getting a chance to introduce himself to America. Geronimo Allison and Jimmy Graham should both be productive against a defense that is getting high marks nationally, but it’s one that has faced Eli Manning, Case Keenum, Josh Rosen and Teddy Bridgewater so far. Yawn.
If the Pack is to spring the upset, they need to fix a lot of the things that bubbled up in the Eagles game: they have to be clean on special teams and not give up big returns and not kickoff out of bounds. They need to be more productive in the red zone and not settle for field goals. And they need to protect the football.
I get the feeling Pettine’s defense looks a whole lot better and makes Elliott work for every yard. I think they force Dak into a couple of mistakes as the Pack abuses substitute left tackle Cam Fleming. And I think Jones is productive as a runner and a receiver and Rodgers once again waves his magic wand at AT&T Stadium. Call me crazy:
Pack 23 Cowboys 22