Tom Silverstein and Ryan Wood discuss what Green Bay must do against Dallas' vaunted running attack and ways to deal with Jordy Nelson's likely absence. (Jan. 11, 2017) USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
GREEN BAY - On paper, it was a heavyweight bout. The NFL’s top run defense against the league’s top offensive line, blocking for a rookie running back on his way to becoming an All-Pro.
The Green Bay Packers knew what their Oct. 16 game against the Dallas Cowboys meant. It was a chance to make a statement. Proof that their dominant, early-season run defense was no fluke. Rookie inside linebacker Blake Martinez said the defense was especially excited for the game.
By kickoff, Martinez admitted, they were too excited.
“It’s the No. 1 defense against the run against the No. 1 run offense,” Martinez said, “and you kind of want to represent and keep that rolling. I think it can get you a little flustered, and I think that could be one factor that possibly could’ve went into the game.”
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A flustered defense was no competition for rookie Ezekiel Elliott. The Packers coughed up 191 rushing yards in a 30-16 loss to the Cowboys. They had allowed 171 rushing yards total through their first four games.
Elliott finished with 157. It was his second-highest rushing total in a game this season, behind only his 159 yards against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 15.
“He was running hard,” outside linebacker Clay Matthews said, “and you fast forward how many weeks later, he’s still running hard.”
Elliott’s trip to Green Bay became a springboard for one of the finest rookie seasons in NFL history. He was especially dominant early in the season, before defenses adjusted. Elliott’s 157-yard effort against the Packers was his fourth straight 100-yard game.
He finished with 1,631 yards this season. If the Cowboys hadn’t been so dominant, he could’ve been within striking distance of Eric Dickerson’s rookie rushing record of 1,808 yards. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett tapered Elliott’s snaps down the stretch, sitting him in the finale after clinching the NFC’s top seed.
Nothing will be more important in Sunday’s divisional playoff game at Dallas than slowing Elliott. A dominant running back is kryptonite for even the best opposing quarterbacks. With Aaron Rodgers on one of the hottest streaks in his career, the Cowboys will want to pound Elliott and keep the Packers' two-time MVP quarterback on the sideline.
The Cowboys know Elliott can take over Sunday’s game. He did it this season at Lambeau Field.
“He does a real good job,” Matthews said, “of kind of finding the holes and being patient, and that’s where he makes a lot of teams pay. I’m not saying we have to do anything special, but we need to do our job. If you look at the runs he hit on us the first time, it was guys just doing too much or kind of playing outside the scheme.
“That’s what we’re focusing on this week, is being accountable and doing our job and being where we need to be.”
The Packers had no problem identifying their biggest problem in the first game. Each player in the locker room Wednesday said the same thing.
In October, they were undisciplined. They “misfit” the run, vacating their gaps. They hunted the big play, ignoring other responsibilities.
Every player also identified the same strength when it comes to Elliott’s running style.
“His most effective trait as a running back,” defensive tackle Letroy Guion said, “is he has great vision. Everything else, he’s like any other running back. What separates him from other running backs, he has great vision.
“When a guy makes a mistake, he attacks right where you make a mistake from. That’s what makes you pay.”
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Elliott’s vision, combined with the Packers' lack of discipline, was a toxic combination. When the Packers sought the big play, they gave up big plays.
In their first four games, the Packers allowed only one run of at least 10 yards. Elliott ripped off an 11-yard run on the Cowboys' first possession, an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. He had a 14-yard run in the second quarter.
Elliott had 60 yards in the first half. More carnage came in the second. Elliott opened the third quarter with a 25-yard run on the Cowboys' first play. He crossed 100 yards on his first carry in the fourth quarter, finishing the final period with 67.
It was more rushing yards than the Packers had allowed in a single game to that point.
“We just won the line of scrimmage,” Elliott said Wednesday. “That’s what it came down to. We wore them down earlier in the game, and in the second half you started to see runs break open.”
The Packers remember it differently.
Players leaving their gaps from snap to snap. Loading up for big hits. Trying to send a message.
If they couldn’t handle their adrenaline in the first game, it’s a wonder how they’ll stay composed Sunday. No matter how big the regular-season matchup, the playoffs are bigger. The Packers are a win from the NFC title game, higher stakes than the middle of October.
Regardless, they all saw the same thing on film this week. Not a single player in their locker room said they were manhandled in October. No, Guion said, the Packers' biggest problem was themselves.
“Makes me sleep better at night,” Guion said, “when we go back and watch that game and see the things that we need to do better, and know that we can correct it. It’s not something that’s not correctable.”