Dallas Cowboys scouting report
The Green Bay Packers (12-4) host the Dallas Cowboys (13-4) on Sunday at Lambeau Field, the seventh playoff meeting between the teams and first since 1996.
The only other time the Cowboys have played a postseason game in Green Bay came in the Ice Bowl on Dec. 31, 1967.
This will be the first time in NFL history a team with an 8-0 home record during the regular season will square off against a team that's 8-0 on the road. The Packers trail Dallas in the all-time series (15-16), but have won the last three games.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (broken collarbone) missed last December's 37-36 victory in Arlington, Texas. His backup, Matt Flynn, threw four touchdown passes in the second half to engineer the biggest comeback in franchise history after trailing 26-3 at halftime.
The game pits the NFL leaders in passer rating, Rodgers (112.2) and Dallas' Tony Romo (113.2). Following is a scouting report on the Cowboys based on interviews with NFL coaches and scouts:
The Cowboys finished second in total rushing (147.1 yards per game) behind fourth-year running back DeMarco Murray (6-0, 217), who played all 16 regular-season games for the first time in his NFL career. Already considered a motivated player, Murray took things to another level this year in leading the league in carries (392), rushing yards (1,845) and all-purpose yards (2,261).
He underwent surgery last month after breaking a hand against Philadelphia on Dec. 14, but has played through it. He's touched the ball 449 times this season but doesn't look any worse for wear.
Dallas likes to use undersized third-year back Lance Dunbar (5-8, 195) in passing situations with Joseph Randle (6-0, 210) spelling Murray in the rare occasion he is off the field. Randle averaged 6.7 yards on 51 carries this season. The running game is buoyed by perhaps the best offensive line in the league.
Where many NFL teams tend to skimp on the line because of restrictions with the salary cap, the Cowboys have invested heavily into the position. They've used their first-round pick in three of their last four drafts on offensive linemen. All three — left tackle Tyron Smith (6-5, 320), former Wisconsin center Travis Frederick (6-3, 315) and right guard Zack Martin (6-4, 310) — were voted into the Pro Bowl this year.
Much of what the Cowboys do in the run game is predicated on their combo-blocking and ability to get to the second level. Smith is considered the best at his position and Dallas paid him accordingly this summer with an eight-year contract extension worth $97.6 million and $10 million signing bonus.
Manitowoc native Doug Free has missed the last three games with a left ankle/foot injury. There hasn't been much drop-off with his replacement at right tackle, Jeremy Parnell (6-6, 315), who might be more athletic. Originally a basketball player at Ole Miss, the Cowboys brought Parnell along slowly after signing him off New Orleans' practice squad in 2010.
Although left guard Ronald Leary (6-3, 320) isn't as heralded as the rest of the line, he's a grinder and pretty good when weighed against the league. The Cowboys like to use their athleticism on the line to get defensive fronts moving laterally, giving Murray a better shot at finding gaps.
Coach Jason Garrett, who's been with the Cowboys since 2007, splits his offense between two-tight end and three-receiver formations. Romo has taken his share of criticism for not elevating the Cowboys to the next level, but this is the best supporting cast he's had since taking over as Dallas' starting quarterback in 2006.
Dallas finished the regular season fifth in scoring offense (29.2 points per game) and seventh in total yards (383.6 ypg) but only 16th in passing yards (236.5 ypg). Romo has leaned heavily on tight end Jason Witten (6-6, 261) for his entire career.
Though his numbers were down this season (64 catches, 703 yards and five touchdowns), Witten remains one of the league's most well-rounded tight ends even at 32 years old. His backups, Gavin Escobar (6-6, 260) and James Hanna (6-4, 260), are options as well.
Fifth-year receiver Dez Bryant (6-2, 220 put together his third consecutive season of more than 80 catches, 1,200 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns. Green Bay had a difficult time containing him last December when he toasted the secondary for 11 catches for 153 yards and a touchdown. He has a large catch radius but is also strong enough to shed tacklers off receiver screens.
Second-year receiver Terrance Williams (6-2, 208) is a vertical threat. He doesn't have great hands, but gets by and takes advantage of the attention Bryant get. Cole Beasley (5-8, 180) is the Cowboys' option-route receiver. He's not overly dynamic but has a good feel for where the sticks are.
Dwayne Harris (5-10, 220) is the fourth receiver and considered a good blocker when called upon in running situations.
The Cowboys reassigned Tampa-2 architect Monte Kiffin to the role of assistant coach/defense after a disastrous 2013 season when Dallas finished last in total defense (415.3 ypg), 30th against the pass (286.8 ypg) and 27th against the run (128.5 ypg).
In his place, the Cowboys promoted one of his pupils, former Detroit coach Rod Marinelli from defensive line coach to coordinator. Although there hasn't been much change with the design of the defense, Dallas has forced more turnovers and minimized big plays.
The lack of playmakers in the wake of Sean Lee's season-ending knee injury remains evident to the point the Cowboys dubbed themselves the "We-fense." While Dallas doesn't have a Pro Bowl defensive player, the front is stout against the run in finishing eighth in the league in allowing 103.1 yards per game.
The saving grace with Lee's injury was the play of linebacker Rolando McClain (6-4, 259), who ended a one-year retirement upon being traded to Dallas in July. He's better against the run (81 tackles), but is instinctive and aware enough in pass coverage (two interceptions and a sack).
McClain exited with concussion-like symptoms in Sunday's wild-card victory against the Lions and didn't return. He also sat out the regular-season finale against Washington with an illness. Rookie Anthony Hitchens (6-0, 235), the linebacker involved in Sunday's pass interference noncall, likely would move inside if McClain isn't cleared.
They have a tall and relatively undersized front, but make up for it with sound fundamentals and high energy. Their two best linemen are Tyrone Crawford (6-4, 285) and Jeremy Mincey (6-4, 280). Crawford plays with power, and has been solid against the run (33 tackles) and as a pass rusher (three sacks).
Hartland native Nick Hayden (6-4, 303) doesn't have a lot of tackles compared to others at his position but eats up blockers and does what's asked of him. George Selvie (6-4, 270) and Anthony Spencer (6-3, 265) rotate at the other end spot with Selvie playing more on running downs.
Spencer has started to look like himself again after missing most of last year because of microfracture surgery on a knee.
Mincey has been their best rusher, bouncing back from a down 2013 season with 36 tackles and team-high six sacks in his first year with the Cowboys. Veteran defensive tackle Henry Melton (6-3, 290) provided added spark with 15 tackles and five sacks but was placed on injured reserve last week with a bone bruise to his right knee.
Dallas finished the regular season 28th in the NFL with 28 sacks. The lack of pressure allows opposing offenses to find holes in Marinelli's secondary. Dallas gave up 251.9 passing yards per game but plays better than its 26th ranking might suggest. The unit doesn't give up many big plays and can force turnovers.
The defense's 18 interceptions tied Arizona, Denver and Green Bay for seventh in the NFL. Surprisingly, No. 1 cornerback Brandon Carr (6-0, 210) didn't have one but remains their best cover cornerback. The secondary has shortcomings in man coverage but is scrappy playing within the scheme.
Safeties Barry Church (6-2, 218) and J.J. Wilcox (6-0, 212) are tough and physical, and can play in the box when asked. They'll mix one-high and two-shell looks to keep offenses off balance. Church's size enables him to serve as almost an extra linebacker on obvious running downs.
Orlando Scandrick (5-10, 196) has played better in his second season as a starter but has limitations in coverage. The zone scheme disguises some of those weaknesses by allowing him to play off and keep plays in front of him. Sterling Moore (5-10, 202) is the nickel cornerback and can play inside or outside depending on where he's needed.
Scandrick usually will slide into the slot unless needed to match against a better perimeter receiver. What Moore lacks in speed and ability he makes up for with scrappy play and intelligence.
The Cowboys have had among the league's most consistent special-teams units since bringing Rich Bisaccia on board in 2013. Dan Bailey, 26, made 86.2 percent (25-of-29) of his field goal attempts this year, though he missed a 41-yard field goal Sunday against Detroit.
He's been historically accurate since entering the league in 2011. His 89.8 field-goal percentage (114-of-127) is second to only Baltimore's Justin Tucker (89.8) for NFL kickers with at least 100 career attempts.
Punter Chris Jones has a strong leg and been steady since replacing Mat McBriar in 2012. He's 19th in the NFL in gross average (45.4 yards) and 14th in net (39.8). Harris (24.7 yards per kickoff; 9.2 yards per punt) isn't a burner — 4.53-second time in the 40-yard dash coming out of Eastern Carolina in 2011 — but is powerful, strong and stays vertical after the catch.
He might be better suited on kickoffs over punts but is functional at both. He's recovered after fumbling four times in the first six weeks of the season.
— whodkiew@pressgazette media.com and follow him on Twitter @WesHod