3 things to watch: Packers vs. Cowboys

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Back on the offensive

Can Richard Rodgers’ game-winning catch really jump-start the Packers’ struggling passing offense? The second-year tight end completed a career day last Thursday in Detroit when he pulled down Aaron Rodgers’ 61-yard Hail Mary with no time remaining to steal a 27-23 victory at Ford Field. Green Bay outscored the Lions 27-6 in the second half to erase an ugly first half in which the offense was shut out and produced only 78 total yards (62 passing, 16 rushing). The Packers should have four of their starting offensive linemen back, which should help quarterback Aaron Rodgers and whatever running back emerges from the Packers’ backfield. Dallas’ defense doesn’t have a lot of star power, but coordinator Rod Marinelli continues to get the most out of the group. The return of middle linebacker Sean Lee has the Cowboys sitting in fifth in total defense (326.5 yards per game). Marinelli has cranked up his blitz packages recently, particularly in a 19-16 win Monday over Washington. That may be the way the Cowboys choose to go against Aaron Rodgers. Historically, the Packers have carved up defenses when they send extra attackers. That’s one reason why Marinelli only blitzed Rodgers five times in January’s divisional playoff game. However, the inability of Packers receivers to consistently get open has crippled the offense and left Rodgers more susceptible to pressure. Rodgers is completing only 42.5 percent of his passes this season when he’s under pressure, according to Pro Football Focus. If the Packers' 23rd-ranked pass offense is going to improve, it needs to capitalize more on those situations. “We prefer when people blitz us. I think our quarterback rating and production under pressure reflects that,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “Regardless of who we play we basically spend about the same amount of time on pressure because it’s obviously a big-play opportunity, the defense is thinking, but from an offensive standpoint we think it’s a big opportunity for us.”

Living with Lacy

The Packers are saying all the right things in the aftermath of Eddie Lacy blowing curfew the night before the Lions game, but it will be interesting exactly how much work the third-year running back gets against the Cowboys. He touched the ball only six times (all in the first half) on 19 snaps against Detroit, but has played well in his previous two encounters with the Cowboys. Lacy rushed for 141 yards and a touchdown in a 37-36 comeback victory over Dallas during his rookie season and then produced another 101 yards in January’s 26-21 playoff win. It’s likely the Packers will start veteran James Starks like they did in Detroit, but McCarthy gave every indication this week that Lacy will get a chance to regain his touches during the final stretch of the season. This is the second time this year the Packers have downshifted on Lacy, whose conditioning has been heavily discussed. A week ago, Lacy admitted his season has been “a roller coaster.” With rain in the forecast, it will be important to establish the run early. Whatever opportunities come Lacy’s way, he needs to do the most with them. “He’s had two good days of practice,” McCarthy said Friday. “We potentially may have a wet Sunday, so we did the wet ball drills and things like that (Thursday). We’ve got to take care of the football. We’ve got to do a better job than we have the last two times we’ve lined up.”

Catching up

Sam Shields didn’t have much interest this week in discussing Dez Bryant’s controversial non-catch in January at Lambeau Field. Has he watched it? “No.” Was it the right call? “Not worrying about that.” What the Packers cornerback will acknowledge is the problems the sixth-year receiver causes for a secondary. Bryant signed a five-year, $70 million extension this offseason on the heels of three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. The 27-year-old receiver missed five games after undergoing foot surgery in September and hasn’t been nearly as dynamic without Tony Romo steering Dallas’ offense (26 catches for 342 yards and two touchdowns). He has only one 100-yard performance, during a 33-27 loss to Philadelphia on Nov. 8. However, his ineffectiveness is probably more of an indictment on the offense under backup quarterback Matt Cassel, who was acquired from Buffalo on Sept. 22. The Cowboys are 29th in scoring offense (18.6 points per game), 27th in total yards (330.2 ypg) and 28th in passing offense (216.5 ypg). The rushing offense has been competent behind Darren McFadden and one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, but hasn’t been able to set the tempo like last season's second-ranked unit. The Packers need to be aware of Bryant and all-pro tight end Jason Witten, but there’s serious question of whether Cassel can turn his offensive weapons into points. “Witten’s been around forever and is a dependable and reliable receiver … Dez Bryant we know is a big, strong, elite receiver,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “We played them here in the playoffs last year and we know what they’re capable of doing with that offensive line because they’re really talented.” and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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