Packers receiver Jordy Nelson and tight end Andrew Quarless look ahead to Sunday's divisonal playoff matchup against the Cowboys. (Jan. 6, 2014)
The Green Bay Packers had no answer for DeMarco Murray on Dec. 15, 2013. At least, not for the first 30 minutes.
The Dallas Cowboys running back ran at will against the Green Bay defensive front, rushing for 93 yards and a touchdown on 11 first-half carries. Paired with the steady hand of Tony Romo, Dallas took a 23-point lead at halftime over the Packers, who were without quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Then, the momentum stopped.
Murray carried the ball only seven more times, Romo threw two critical interceptions and Green Bay backup quarterback Matt Flynn threw four touchdown passes in the second half en route to a 37-36 victory inside Cowboys Stadium, tying a franchise record for largest comeback.
While the Packers celebrated their renewed playoff hopes, the Cowboys' coaching staff was left to answer for why the ball was taken out of Murray's hands with such a substantial lead. Two weeks later, Dallas' season ended with an 8-8 record.
The teams meet again Sunday in an NFC divisional playoff game at Lambeau Field, and Green Bay's defense knows there won't be any avoiding Murray, the NFL's reigning rushing champion.
"If they kept running the ball, who knows what would have happened?" defensive lineman Datone Jones said of last year's game. "But it's a whole new year; I know they are fired up, it's the playoffs. I know Tony Romo is fired up and it's going to be an exciting game."
Murray was healthy enough to play in all 16 regular-season games for the Cowboys, who rode him for 392 carries for 1,845 yards and 13 touchdowns in a contract season. His 449 touches finished as the fifth-most in NFL history in a regular season.
Not to mention Murray added 22 in last Sunday's 24-20 win over the Detroit Lions. His numbers have started to sag slightly over the past month — 3.4 yards per carry on his past 92 attempts — but many believe he's still playing at his optimum level despite the heavy workload.
Packers defensive lineman Letroy Guion played with Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson during his first six NFL seasons. On film, the 6-foot, 217-pound running back reminds Guion somewhat of Peterson in his younger years — quick, agile, good vision and strong at the point of contact.
The Cowboys like to stress fronts with stretch plays and counters, enabling Murray to cut back and burst through gaps. It's the ability to wear down defenses that opens things up for Romo, receiver Dez Bryant and the rest of Dallas' offense.
"He's going to make his plays," linebacker Clay Matthews said. "The bottom line is we can't let him get going, especially on the edge against those DBs. We need to stop him. Detroit did a good job last week of corralling him for the most part, disrupting that front line and creating pressure. It's about getting all hats to the ball, because he's a special talent and will make his plays."
USA TODAY Sports' Lorenzo Reyes breaks down the Cowboys-Packers game.
A little more than two months ago, it seemed like a potential playoff matchup with the Cowboys would be a nightmare for a Packers defense that was giving up a league-high 153 rushing yards per game through the first eight games.
It wasn't until New Orleans running back Mark Ingram gashed Green Bay for 172 yards in a 44-23 defeat that the tables finally turned, starting with Matthews' move to inside linebacker.
When reflecting on the decision, defensive coordinator Dom Capers admits the move was "pretty drastic," but the defense needed answers. Unless something changed, the Packers were on pace to give up a historic amount of ground production.
If you're unable to lay that foundation, the rest of the defense falls apart.
"Our run defense wasn't playing well enough," Capers said. "We weren't tackling the way we needed to tackle. And obviously you guys know in this league, if you can't stop the run, then everything kind of starts with that with our philosophy. Because people just control the tempo of the game on you and you're playing uphill the whole time."
Over the past eight games, the Packers' rushing defense has been among the league's stingiest units. It's giving up 86 rushing yards per contest and hasn't allowed a gain of more than 15 yards since the bye week.
New contributors like inside linebacker Sam Barrington and rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix have brought tenacity to the defense and seen their roles grow accordingly. It's translated onto the defensive line where the one-two punch of Mike Daniels and Guion has set the tone for defending the run.
"We're just playing (it) better," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. "It just maybe took us a little bit longer to get going the way we got it. I think they took a lot of pride in getting that fixed. The defensive players, as a whole, took a lot of pride of getting that fixed and worked really hard to fix it."
Capers made it clear earlier this week that Dallas' rushing offense will be his unit's biggest challenge to date. It's easy to see why. The Cowboys' 2,354 rushing yards was the most the team has recorded since 1981 (2,711).
It starts with a stacked and athletic offensive line, which consists of three first-round picks in left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and guard Zack Martin, built around Murray being at the peak of his powers.
He was getting close to that level last season when he rushed for his 1,121 yards and nine touchdowns in 14 games, but Dallas seems to finally have caught on. The 26-year-old running back no longer is a part of the offense — he's the center of attention.
Its 508 rushing plays are the most Dallas has called in nearly a decade. The 392 carries the Cowboys gave to Murray were the most in the NFL since former Kansas City running back Larry Johnson rushed 416 times during the regular season in 2006.
Murray has carried the ball more than 28 times in six games this year. Not surprisingly, the Cowboys are undefeated in those games. The Packers' run defense knows it will be tested and it's a certainty it won't receive the same reprieve it did from Murray last December.
"I know there was a lot of talk that they should have stuck with the run, I guess," inside linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "You get a feel of what kind of runner he is, what kind of blocker the guy is out of the backfield, but they're definitely committed more to the run this year than they ever have. You see what he's done.
"We have a lot of respect for how he plays — the whole offense, but Murray especially. He runs very hard. As a linebacker, I respect that, and this is going to be a big challenge."
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