GREEN BAY - It’ll be the Green Bay Packers’ top-ranked run defense against the Dallas Cowboys’ top-ranked run offense Sunday when the teams meet at Lambeau Field.
Behind rookies Dak Prescott at quarterback and Ezekiel Elliott at running back, the Cowboys (4-1) are averaging 155.2 yards rushing and 241.8 passing for 397 per game, second-best in the NFL.
“They’re not going to run for 150 yards but I can see them doing 105, 110,” an executive in personnel said Tuesday. “Despite losing Tony Romo and not having Dez Bryant for several games, they are moving the ball consistently and with exceptional balance.
“The Dallas offense has been one of the big stories of the NFL season. This is the best team that the Packers have played so far. Excellent complementary football team that controls the clock for a defense that benefits.”
Ten months ago the Cowboys also visited Green Bay without Romo and departed with a 28-7 defeat behind overmatched Matt Cassel en route to a 4-12 season. It was coach Mike McCarthy’s fifth straight victory over Dallas, including four at Lambeau Field.
Even though the Packers have lost to unbeaten Minnesota, the scout rates the Cowboys over the Vikings. In that vein, he picked Dallas over Green Bay, 21-17, which coincidentally was the score of the “Ice Bowl” won by the Packers on New Year’s Eve 1967.
“The Cowboys know who they want to be and they follow up on it,” the scout said. “There’s an identity to the team. We’re not going to beat ourselves. You’re going to have to beat us.”
The Packers (3-1), a 4½-point favorite, were the choice of three other personnel men. Their predicted scores were 27-24, 28-24 and 30-24.
“They (the Packers) always play better at home and the fact Dallas still hasn’t shown they can rush the passer,” one scout said to explain his pick. “That’s a problem when you’re going to Green Bay. It’s the same scenario as with the Giants the other night.”
Bryant is expected to miss a third straight game with a hairline fracture in his knee.
“Despite the absence of Dez, Green Bay’s veteran defenders will have their hands full because Dallas can still generate plenty of offense behind an experienced offensive line,” one scout said. “On defense, Dallas is just beginning to play well.”
The fourth personnel man gave the Packers the edge.
“Though Dallas’ offense is trending well, I do believe Green Bay’s offense will be able to match them on the scoreboard,” the scout said. “The veteran presence of their offense and (Aaron) Rodgers could prove to be the difference when games are won and lost in the fourth quarter.”
Coordinator Scott Linehan is in his third season calling plays under coach Jason Garrett. For this day and age, his run rate of 51.5% is exorbitant. The Cowboys pull linemen, run zone plays and incorporate jet sweeps. The passing game is predicated off play-action, sometimes with maximum protection. The Cowboys rank second in yards (397), tied for fourth in giveaways (three) and eighth in points (25.8).
Minus Dez Bryant (knee), possibly the NFL’s most physically gifted WR, the No. 1 target is TE Jason Witten (6-5½, 263). At 34, he can’t run at all anymore but it really doesn’t matter. He uses his strength to body defenders, his cleverness to get open and his tremendous hands to snag everything. His blocking is marginal. The blocking TE is Geoff Swaim (6-4½, 260), a seventh-round pick in 2015. Gavin Escobar (6-6, 260), a talented receiver and second-round pick in ’13, can’t block and seldom plays. The WRs, in order, are Terrance Williams (6-2, 210), Cole Beasley (5-8, 180), Brice Butler (6-3, 220) and Lucky Whitehead (5-11, 180). Williams, a 42-game starter, is able to stretch the field with 4.50 speed but also does a lot of body catching. Beasley, the top slot since ’13, does the dirty work inside and always seems to get open. Dak Prescott trusts his hands and reliability. He runs 4.50, too. Butler, a former Raider, is a smooth athlete with 4.39 speed and the length to help in the red zone. Whitehead is a gadget guy.
This might be the No. 1 group in the NFL. LT Tyron Smith (6-5, 320), the ninth pick in ’11, could be the best in the business. His arms (36 3/8 inches), his hands (11 inches) and speed (4.98) are incredible. He’s a dancing bear with exceptional punch and adequate awareness. RG Zack Martin (6-4, 315), the pick at No. 16 in ’14 over Jerry Jones favorite Johnny Manziel, is a phenomenal player. A four-year starting LT at Notre Dame, Martin is strong, light on his feet and tenacious. His short arms (32 7/8) and small hands (9½) haven’t held him back one iota. Pro Bowl C Travis Frederick (6-3½, 318), a former Badger from Walworth Big Foot, has started every game since being the 31st pick in ’13. He plays way beyond his athletic limitations because of short-area quickness, keen intelligence (Wonderlic score of 34), consistency and proper angles. LG La’el Collins was lost for the season (triceps) in Game 3 but there has been little or no dropoff to Ronald Leary (6-3, 320), a starter from 2013 to early ’15. He operates best in close quarters where he can maul and mash. He’s an average athlete with tiny hands (8 5/8) and will get beat in protection. Veteran RT Doug Free (6-6, 318) is a seven-year starter who generally compensates for strength and flexibility shortcomings with good feet and experience.
The Cowboys, 1-11 a year ago without the injured Tony Romo, are 4-1 under Dak Prescott (6-2, 238). At Mississippi State, he posted a 23-10 record and NFL passer rating of 99.6 while rushing for 2,501 yards and 41 TDs. Linehan doesn’t ask the rookie, a fourth-round pick, to do too much. His poise, accuracy and leadership have been remarkable. Not only doesn’t Prescott have an interception, he has made precious few bad throws. He uses his thick build and 4.78 speed to run effectively off zone-read action or scrambles. He has done well going through his progression and throwing tight spirals from a solid base. His Wonderlic score was 25. Backup Mark Sanchez (6-2, 225), signed Sept. 4, has a career passer rating of 74.3 and a record of 37-35.
Rookie Ezekiel Elliott (5-11½, 225), the fourth pick, has played as advertised. Improving week to week, he can get the tough yards or break away with 4.48 speed. He sees cutback lanes, hits holes fast, runs over or around tacklers, finishes with body lean and has soft hands. His pass blocking needs work but he still plays third downs. Alfred Morris (5-10, 222), three times a 1,000-yard rusher in Washington, doesn’t look used up. FB Keith Smith (5-11½, 240), an ex-LB, is an OK blocker.
Third-year coordinator Rod Marinelli operates a 4-3 “over” defense with a one-gap style front. Once a Tampa 2/Cover 2 proponent, he is playing more man coverage lately out of single-high looks. Minus great individual rushers, he uses a lot of stunts and coaches people hard. The effort level of this unit jumps off the tape. The Cowboys rank eighth in points (18.2), 16th in yards (355.6) and tied for 22nd in takeaways (five).
The most talented rusher is DE DeMarcus Lawrence (6-3, 270), a second-round pick in ’14 who played 17 snaps on passing downs Sunday after serving a four-game league suspension. He’s fluid, fast (4.72) and can bend under tackles. The starting lineup of LE Tyrone Crawford (6-4, 295), RE Jack Crawford (6-5, 288), nose tackle Terrell McClain (6-1½, 302) and 3-technique Maliek Collins (6-2, 305) has no standout. Canadian Tyrone Crawford, a three-year starter and third-round pick in ’12, is strong, iron-willed and effective on the move. Jack Crawford, a fifth-round pick in ’12, is a first-year starter and isn’t as good or as instinctive as Tyrone. However, he also gives all-out effort and is rugged against the run. McClain, with his fourth team in six years, is a full-fledged starter for the first time. He’s quick off the ball, can be disruptive and goes hard, but will get shoved around, too. Collins, a third-round pick in April, is stouter than McClain but his game is based on penetrating quickness as well. He’s been OK. Cedric Thornton (6-3, 295), a starting base end from 2013-’15 in the Eagles’ 3-4, has been giving too much ground against double-teams. Ex-Seahawk Benson Mayowa (6-3, 265) filled in for Lawrence as a designated edge rusher. He has turn-the-corner tools but gets mashed against the run. Another threat off the edge is steadily improving free agent Ryan Davis (6-3, 270).
The defensive leader is WLB Sean Lee (6-2, 238), who sat out two of the last three games against Green Bay with injuries. Playing all 311 snaps in Games 1-5, Lee lines everyone up, plays instinctively and has 12 career interceptions. He’s too small to stuff the run head-on but makes a ton of plays moving laterally. MLB Anthony Hitchens (6-0, 235), a fourth-round pick in ’14 and 25-game starter, plays the run better than his size suggests but has issues in coverage, especially on seam routes. If SLB Kyle Wilber (6-4, 235) can’t play (neck), there’s little or no dropoff to ex-Charger Andrew Gachkar (6-2½, 240). Wilber is a long-armed technician with movement flaws; Gachkar is fast (4.58) and athletic but is slow to react.
Even without capable nine-year CB Orlando Scandrick, out with a hamstring, this is a strong group. LC Morris Claiborne (5-11, 192), the sixth pick in ’12, went from bust to player last year and has continued his rise this year. He has cut his mental blows and is tackling better. With 4.46 speed, 33¼ arms and swagger, he has been effective in press-man coverage. RC Brandon Carr (6-0, 210), a former Chief and nine-year starter, isn’t quite as good as Claiborne but remains a competitive No. 2. He’s better pressing than playing off, and has never been a ballhawk. Rookie nickel back Anthony Brown (5-11, 196), a sixth-round pick from Purdue, has played surprisingly well. He has the speed (4.34) to make up for mistakes and is strong, but tends to cover too much with his hands. SS Barry Church (6-1½, 218), a four-year starter, is much better in the box but, with 4.7 speed, can’t be isolated in coverage. FS Byron Jones (6-0½, 205), the 27th pick in ’15, is an all-time athlete with 4.42 speed and the strength to tackle. He’s figuring it out in a hurry. Backup SS J.J. Wilcox (6-0, 212), a 34-game starter, also plays extensively and acts as an enforcer.
Pro Bowl K Dan Bailey, a 90.6% marksman from 2011-’15, is battling a bad back and has missed two of 10 field-goal attempts. Left-footed P Chris Jones, a four-year regular, ranks seventh in net average (40.5). Lucky Whitehead, the return specialist for a second season, is better on kickoffs. Safeties Jeff Heath and Wilcox are the top core players for coach Rich Bisaccia.
Last spring, Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott was a unanimous choice as the best running back in the draft in a Journal Sentinel poll of 19 NFL personnel people. Some called him the best back to enter the draft since Adrian Peterson in 2007. Elliott is off to a remarkable start with a league-leading 546 rushing yards (412 in the last three games) in a league-high 109 carries. He’s averaging 5.0 yards per rush, down from his average of 6.7 for the Buckeyes. Part of the reason for his mediocre first two weeks was the hamstring injury that limited him to just seven carries in the exhibition season.
Right tackle Doug Free is considered the weak link of the Cowboys’ elite offensive line. He still is a serviceable starter, but on a team with few weaknesses he’ll have to suffice. On Sunday, Free was beat for a strip-sack by Bengals DE Carlos Dunlap that wasn’t pretty. A native of Manitowoc, Free is in his 10th season after being drafted by the Cowboys in the fourth round from Northern Illinois. After backing up LT Flozell Adams and RT Marc Colombo from 2007-’09, he started at LT from 2010-’12 and at RT since.
Perhaps the hottest name in the NFL is Dak Prescott, the rookie quarterback who took over for injured Tony Romo in late August after the veteran suffered a compression fracture in his back.
Prescott, a fourth-round draft choice from Mississippi State, is off to one of the greatest starts ever by a rookie quarterback. His passer rating of 107.4 ranks third in the NFL, and he has rushed 19 times for 61 yards and three touchdowns.
Did anyone see this coming? Here are excerpts from my eight interviews with executives in personnel that were conducted about a month before the draft:
AFC scout: “Like him. He has second-round talent but probably will go in the third. If you get him in the fourth you go, ‘Wow.’ Big guy. He can run with the football and create on his own, and he’s got a good arm.”
NFC scout: “I don’t see it at all. He’s got a good agent. He’s got no accuracy, got no vision. I don’t think he’s an NFL quarterback.”
AFC scout: “He ran that team, motivated that team. He held guys accountable. Depending what you do offensively, he could be a backup. I just don’t see the vision downfield. He’s a very streaky thrower. There will be a place for him in the league. I’d take him over Tim Tebow, hands down. In the mid-rounds he’d be a great pick.”
AFC scout: “I think he got better in the pocket. His accuracy got better. He’s a great kid. He’ll fight and work. It may take him a year or two to (become) Tyrod Taylor. He runs like he’s a running back, and sometimes he wears down. Competitive son of a gun.”
NFC scout: “I just don’t see enough arm. Late-round pick.”
AFC scout: “I really like him. The guy’s just a winner. He was the entire team there. He’s got poise, patience, focus, field vision, makes quick decisions, good arm strength, nice touch. Worst thing about him was his O-line, which was awful. Stands tall in the pocket under pressure. The whole team revolved around him.”
AFC scout: “Developmental type at best. He’s a fifth-rounder.”
AFC scout: “I don’t like him. Great kid. Not good, great. His personality is better than Logan Thomas’ but that’s who he’s like. He’s just a big guy that runs and is a product of that system.”