Pete Dougherty and Michael Cohen discuss the Packers' injury outlook at running back and having to deal with Cowboys rookie quarterback Dak Prescott. USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
GREEN BAY – When you think about the great Dallas Cowboys teams of the 1990s, your mind probably goes right to Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin.
But if you want to know the secret to their success, it was that massive ball of rolling thunder that blew open the opposition’s front door and gave Smith room to run, Aikman a comfortable pocket and Irvin time to run his routes.
Erik Williams. Nate Newton. Mark Stepnoski. Larry Allen. Mark Tuinei.
The Green Bay Packers certainly remember that offensive line. They lost to the Cowboys eight straight times during the ‘90s and always were in the fight of their lives at the line of scrimmage.
Fast forward to 2016 and the Cowboys are back to having arguably the best offensive line in the NFL, sporting three first-round picks – left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and guard Zack Martin – a projected top 10 pick who dropped out of the draft after his name was connected to a crime he didn’t commit, La’el Collins – and a 10-year veteran, Doug Free.
Even though Collins was lost for the year with a torn toe ligament after three games, his backup, Ron Leary, has been an ample replacement.
“It's one of the most talented groups in the league, I'll say that,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.
They are, by much estimation, the gold standard for offensive lines.
They enter their game against the Packers on Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field anchoring an offense that leads the NFL in rushing and third-down conversion rate and is tied for second in fewest sacks allowed despite playing with a rookie quarterback and rookie running back.
“They’re all first-round picks up there and they run that zone scheme very good,” nose tackle Letroy Guion said. “If you don’t play with the right techniques it can create holes in the defense. We know that, we’re practicing for it and we’re preparing ourselves for it.”
They also aren’t the only offensive line that will be on the field Sunday.
Across the way, the Packers have invested draft picks in their offensive line and have what might be their most athletic group since 2003. The Packers aren’t playing great on offense, but their line has been one of the bright spots despite a front-office gamble to replace three-time Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton with fourth-year pro Lane Taylor.
The Packers rank 11th in rushing yards per play (4.31), 12th in sacks per pass attempt (5.76 percent), third in third-down success (48.21 percent), 11th in fewest holding penalties (eight) and first in fewest false start penalties (zero).
It’s rare for a Packers offensive line to be performing this well this early in the season because of an injury history, frequent shuffling of personnel and devotion to getting young backups lots of practice time in training camp.
“Usually you get better as you go along and the offensive line, in general, that’s the case,” said associate head coach/offense Tom Clements. “But these guys, a lot of them have been playing together a long time. They’re very smart guys, they pick things up, they know what they’re supposed to do, they’re very good technicians.
“So, all those things combined, the experience, their intelligence, their work ethic, they’re playing very well.”
Since Jason Garrett became head coach in 2010, owner Jerry Jones has gone all-in on building the offensive line. He drafted Smith with the ninth pick overall in 2011, Frederick with the 31st pick in 2013, Martin with the 16th pick in ’14 and lured Collins in with a three-year fully guaranteed contract in ’15 after no one drafted him.
Smith has gone to three Pro Bowls and Frederick and Martin to two.
“That was the vision that we had for our team right from the start, we had to get stronger on the offensive line,” Garrett said this week. “We got through a period of transition where we had a lot of good players on the offensive line, but they were getting older at the same time.
“So we had to, we had to invest in some resources into building our offensive line, and no better resource than the draft.”
During the years the Packers were trying to get over the hump against the Cowboys in the ‘90s, their philosophy wasn’t to invest lots of draft capital on the offensive line. The West Coast system Mike Holmgren learned from Bill Walsh believed in spending big on tackles but going cheap on guards.
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General manager Ron Wolf only once drafted a guard higher than the fourth round (Aaron Taylor, first round, 1994) and the line that started in Super Bowl XXXI featured a third-round pick (Earl Dotson), a seventh-round pick (Adam Timmerman), a Plan B free agent (Frank Winters) and a street free agent (Bruce Wilkerson).
Times have changed, however, and general manager Ted Thompson has accepted that you can’t rely on low-round picks and cheap veteran free agents to block the increasingly athletic big men playing on the defensive line.
What’s more, Thompson has drafted mostly left tackles, where colleges tend to put their most athletic players. David Bakhtiari, JC Tretter, T.J. Lang, Bryan Bulaga, Jason Spriggs and Kyle Murphy all played left tackle in college.
“You can never have enough big bodies who can move and play and our offense is all about athleticism with our screen game, with our zone running game,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “And we’ve got to have guys that can move around and pass block but also be athletic enough to cover down(field).
“You saw multiple times in the game (Sunday) we had runs where linemen were getting to the second and third levels, and you love to see that. You love to see our guys covering the football like they do and we’ve got to keep that thing going.”
It’s a given that most people, given the option of playing with the Cowboys or Packers offensive lines would pick the Cowboys. The Packers don’t have a single Pro Bowl player on their line and only one first-round pick (Bulaga).
Still, the Packers are gaining confidence with each performance and wouldn’t mind showing the world Sunday afternoon that they deserve to be in the same conversation as the Cowboys. It’s not a bad stage in which to prove it.
“I’m not going to sit here and say we’re better than them or they’re better than us,” Lang said. “I’ve watched a lot of film on them. I think they definitely are one of the best in the league, no doubt about it.
“We feel like we’re right up there at the top with them. It’s all about consistency, though. We realize that you’ve got to flush each performance week after week. It doesn’t matter what we did the last four games. What matters is what we do on Sunday.”