GREEN BAY – A year ago, the Green Bay Packers entered their fifth game of the season against a Dallas Cowboys team they did not know.
They had a few film snippets of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, then the dynamic rookie quarterback and running back who would lead the Cowboys to a 13-3 record and No. 1 playoff seed in the NFC. But the Packers' defense was effectively flying blind when the Cowboys arrived at Lambeau Field last October.
“The first time,” safety Morgan Burnett said, “you heard about them and knew they were good. Now you’ve actually got film on them.”
It’s different now as the Packers prepare for their fifth game this season.
The Packers play the Cowboys on Sunday for the third time within a calendar year, their second trip to Dallas. They beat the Cowboys 34-31 in January, an NFC divisional playoff thriller.
Unlike last October, when Prescott and Elliott carried momentum into their early meeting with the Packers, the Cowboys' offense is off to a sluggish start. They rank outside the league’s top 10 in points and yards after finishing top five in both last season. They’ve reached 30 points in a game only once this season, and that came in last week’s home loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
The Cowboys scored at least 30 points in seven games counting playoffs last season, including both games against the Packers.
“For me, it’s kind of like a division opponent,” defensive tackle Kenny Clark said. “Because this is going to be my third time playing them. They know what we’re going to do, and we know what they’re going to do. We’ve got a feel for them, and they’ve got a feel for us. They know what to expect, and that’s why I feel like it’s going to be such a good game, it’s going to be a battle.”
Even in a small sample size, the Cowboys’ first four games this season pale in comparison to their opening month of 2016.
On his way to receiving rookie of the year honors, Elliott had 412 yards in his first four games last fall. When he entered Lambeau Field, Elliott was midway through a torrid stretch of four consecutive games with more than 130 yards.
With a potential six-game suspension looming over him this season, Elliott hasn’t been as explosive. His 277 rushing yards through four games still ranks ninth in the NFL, but it’s far from his rookie production. After leading the league with 14 carries of at least 20 yards last fall, Elliott has only two this season.
“You see a lot more loaded boxes,” Elliott said. “We’re off to a little slower start.”
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For all the talent between Prescott and receiver Dez Bryant, loaded boxes have become the blueprint to defending Dallas. The Cowboys will run defenses to death if given the chance. When they do, it sets up their play-action game, the staple of their pass offense.
Elliott’s highest rushing total in a game this season was 104 yards in the Cowboys' opener against the New York Giants. In each of the other three, he was held under 90. The Denver Broncos, primarily playing nickel defense, held Elliott to the worst game of his young career in Week 2. He had eight yards on nine carries, the first time he’d been held under 50 yards in a game.
It was no coincidence Prescott had perhaps the worst game of his career in Denver. He threw two interceptions for only the second time, though the first bounced off Bryant’s hands.
When Prescott entered Lambeau Field last October, he had yet to throw an interception in his first five games. He threw his first that day to Burnett, an errant pass intended for tight end Jason Witten in the third quarter, but Prescott tossed only four interceptions as a rookie.
He has almost matched his rookie total with three interceptions in this season’s first four games.
“There's a lot of film on him last year as the season wore on,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said, “and people saw the style of offense we were playing. He just handled those situations really well. I think he handled the offseason really well working on different things in his game, where he thought he could get better. Then over the first part of this season, there's no experience like experience in a game. He's still a young quarterback, does not have that many starts under his belt.
“One of the great things about him is, regardless of what the result is — you win the game, you lose the game — he's very objective in evaluating himself and what we need to do to get better.”
The biggest change on Dallas’ offense from last season isn’t quarterback or running back, but offensive line.
The Cowboys had the best unit in the league last season. They’re still bolstered by their trio of All-Pro linemen: left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin. But Doug Free’s retirement and Ronald Leary’s free-agency departure to Denver, where he signed a four-year, $35 million contract this spring, disrupted what had been a cohesive group.
La’el Collins, who spent 13 games on injured reserve last season, moved outside to replace Free at right tackle after starting his career at left guard. Without the veteran Leary, the Cowboys turned to 2016 third-round pick Chaz Green to fill the void at left guard.
Green, a natural tackle, has held up well enough at guard, but neither he nor Collins has been as consistent as their predecessors.
“I know a lot has been made about that,” Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews said, “as far as giving up pressures and sacks, but they still play really well, and play well together. I’m sure they’re going through some growing pains right now, but we’ve got to be able to take advantage of opportunities to rush the passer. And stopping the run, taking advantage of the continuity we have.
“We’ll see what that means after this weekend, but they had a really good O-line last year, and they still have a lot of the same pieces.”
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It’s possible the Cowboys’ slower start is merely a byproduct of playing the Broncos early in the season. Earlier this week, Packers cornerback Davon House called the Broncos the NFL’s best defense. They lead the NFL in yards allowed and rank sixth in points.
No matter, the Cowboys had their way with the Packers' defense in their past two meetings. Prescott threw an interception in both games, but he also had six touchdowns passes against the Packers. His combined passer rating in the two games was 109.
For that reason, the Packers' defense isn’t overlooking the Cowboys. On Sunday, it will find out whether Dallas' slow start is a blip, or a sign of a frustrating season ahead.
"I don't think it's smart,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, “to compare a 17-game season to four games. I know I don't. I look at tendencies, I look at patterns. You look at production. Overall total yards, you start throwing blanket statements and blanket numbers to make an evaluation, that's not the way we do it.
“You've got to look at the video. You look at the things (Elliott and Prescott are) doing, and they're both fine, fine, good football players, very productive. They'll be a big challenge for our defense."