A quick overview of three storylines that could help determine the outcome of Sunday afternoon's showdown between the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys.
GREEN BAY – When defensive tackle Mike Daniels, the Green Bay Packers’ one-man wrecking ball, dropped out of action with a hip injury seven snaps into the Atlanta game in Week 2, the prospects of the run defense showing resistance against the Falcons and the Packers’ next two opponents seemed unlikely.
The Falcons ran 22 times for 107 yards (4.86 average) and two touchdowns after Daniels left the game, and their per-carry average was around 6.1 yards (if you take away the six runs they attempted on their final series when they were trying to run out the clock).
The Packers had plenty of reason to fret about the Cincinnati Bengals and Chicago Bears coming to Lambeau Field. Both teams featured power running games and were relying on it because their quarterbacks were playing poorly.
But what happened in those two games — both victories — was that nose tackle Kenny Clark began to emerge from the shadow of Daniels and street free-agent pickup Quinton Dial got back to doing what he does best, which is play the run in a 3-4 defense.
In the Packers’ 27-24 overtime victory in Week 3, the Bengals needed 30 carries to top the 100-yard mark and wound up averaging 3.7 yards per carry. In the Packers' 35-14 victory over the Bears on Thursday night, Chicago also needed 30 carries to break the 100-yard mark and wound up averaging 3.4 yards per carry.
Daniels is the Packers’ best run defender, but the work Clark and Dial have done in his absence has been crucial to the defense’s success, especially given how many times defensive coordinator Dom Capers replaces an inside linebacker with a safety.
Over the last two games, teams have gained 50 yards on 15 carries (3.3 average) when Clark and Dial were on the field together.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Dial, who was released by the San Francisco 49ers after training camp. “Once we come out and get hot … we just have to continue and do that and be consistent. When we get (future) opportunities we have to be at the top of our game, we have to tackle better.
“But right now, this is a lot of fun.”
Even if Daniels is back this week, the Packers are going to need a presence from Clark and Dial. It could be critically important to the Packers’ chances of winning for the second time in eight months in Dallas.
The only reason it might not be classified as critical is if Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott isn’t on the field. Elliott is waiting on a federal appeals panel’s decision on whether his NFL-imposed six-game suspension should remain on hold while his case plays out in court.
After a hearing Monday, the panel said it would get back to the NFL’s 2016 rushing leader and NFL offensive rookie of the year “as soon as possible.”
Elliott, playing under a cloud of uncertainty, ranks ninth in the NFL in rushing with 277 yards and two touchdowns on 76 carries. After averaging 5.1 yards per carry last year, he is averaging 3.6, a good deal of it the result of a nine-carry, eight-yard performance against Denver in Week 2.
In a 35-30 home loss Sunday to the Los Angeles Rams, Elliott had 139 yards from scrimmage (85 rushing, 54 receiving) and two touchdowns. If the Cowboys are going to bounce back from their 2-2 start, Elliott will be the focus offensively.
The Packers may counter with a five-man rotation of Daniels, Clark, Dean Lowry, Ricky Jean Francois and Dial, which would mark the first time their top five were available for the same game this season.
The one constant has been Clark, whose performance against the Bears was one of the best in his short career. He was credited with just one assisted tackle, but he had three quarterback pressures and his continued disruption in the middle of the field was a bee in the Bears’ bonnet all night.
Clark, the 2016 first-round pick from UCLA, took advantage of his matchup with center Cody Whitehair, who at 6-4, 310 pounds is no slouch physically.
On the first two series, Clark drove Whitehair into the backfield, making it possible for linebacker Clay Matthews to dump running back Jordan Howard for no gain. On the next series, he went through Whitehair and pressured quarterback Mike Glennon into an incompletion.
In the second quarter, he stuffed Whitehair again on a Howard rush for no gain. On another play, Clark pushed guard Josh Sitton back far enough that Glennon couldn’t follow through on his pass and was picked off by safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix when the ball sailed over the receiver’s head.
Later, Clark split a double team and forced another incompletion and then beat right tackle Bobby Massie and helped force a negative run.
For the season, Clark ranks sixth on the team in tackles with 16, tied for first in quarterback pressures with four and first in defensive line snaps with 173. He has done it mostly without Daniels there to draw attention away from double teams.
Clark has been on the upswing since late last season, and his coming of age might have been his performance in the Packers’ divisional-round playoff upset of the Cowboys. Playing against the formidable interior of Pro Bowl guard Zach Martin, Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick and veteran guard Ron Leary, Clark stood out.
He had successful bull rushes against all three players and registered two quarterback pressures, including one that cut short a drive and forced a field goal. He had four tackles, including one for loss on a screen pass to Elliott that he sniffed out.
This will be a chance for Clark to show his wares again.
For Dial, the last three games have been an opportunity to jump-start his career after playing for a 49ers team that went 15-33 over the past three seasons and switched to a 4-3 defense. The Packers recognized that the 27-year-old Dial would be the run-stuffing complement they needed while Lowry and rookie Montravius Adams were developing.
Dial’s long arms and strong hands are evident and his ability to stay square when he needs to and slip double-team blocks when there’s an opportunity has been noticeable. The 6-5, 318-pounder has 11 tackles in three games, knocked down a pass and combined for a tackle for loss.
He’s not going to offer much pass rush — he has 4½ career sacks — but that’s why the Packers have Daniels and drafted Lowry and Adams. Any pass rush they get from Dial would be a gift.
This week, Elliott could make the Packers’ run defense look like a sieve. He has the talent to do that to anybody. But if the last two games have been any indication, the Packers may have found a strength to their defense and Clark and Dial are a big part of it.