Packers' run defense gashed but not exposed

Eric Baranczyk and Pete Dougherty
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The Green Bay Packers' run defense lost big Sunday, but that doesn't mean it was exposed as a fraud.

The Dallas Cowboys punished coordinator Dom Capers' defense for 191 yards and a 5.8-yard average per carry. Rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott had 157 yards and a 5.6 average. That's a decisive win for the NFL's top-rated rushing game against what was the league's best run defense going into the game.

Are the Packers the league's best run defense? This game says no. But a look at the videotape suggests the Packers' first four games against the run weren't a fluke, and there's still reason to think they are among the league's best team's stopping the run, even if they're not No. 1.

The biggest takeaway is that while Dallas has an excellent offensive line — probably the league’s best — it’s Elliott who puts the Cowboys’ run game over the top. The No. 4 pick overall in this year’s draft already is one of the top two or three backs in the league.

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Last year, Dallas finished No. 9 in rushing with Darren McFadden as its primary back. That’s a testament to the quality of the line for a team that played most of its season without its starting quarterback (Tony Romo). But the line is essentially the same as in 2015. So the improvement is all Elliott. He can turn on a dime. He runs with power and runs low at the point of contact. He’s really good.

Capers knew the Cowboys were a far bigger challenge than he’d faced up to this point this season, so he came up with a new defense that he mixed in with his more standard calls. While it was creative, it wasn’t effective. The Packers’ run defense simply didn’t hold up.

The biggest problem was in the middle of the line, where center Travis Frederick and guards Zack Martin and Ronald Leary consistently pushed back Letroy Guion. Guion is big (322 pounds), strong and has played good run defense early this season. But the Cowboys’ linemen excel at keeping their pads down and winning the leverage battle. And Frederick, the former first-round pick from Wisconsin, is as good as they come at the center position. He impressed.

When the offensive line gets that kind of push up the gut, it changes everything. Linebackers can’t scrape and make tackles near the line of scrimmage, because they have to work around the teammate who has been pushed back. So a one-yard gain turns into four or five, especially with a back as good as Elliott.

You saw that as early as the game’s fourth play, when Leary drove back Guion and then pushed him aside the hole on the left side of the line. Elliott burst through and picked up 11 yards.

The game also showed why Julius Peppers is best used as a pass-rush specialist at this point in his career. He still has ability and moves as a pass rusher, but his reactions in the run game have diminished. That made him a liability Sunday, when he twice gave up big gains.

The first was on the Cowboys’ big 26-yard jet sweep by receiver Lucky Whitehead in the final minute of the first half that set up a touchdown. Peppers went inside tight end Jason Witten’s block, and Whitehead simply blew around him and through a wide-open lane that gave the drive life.

The other was early in the fourth quarter with the Cowboys approaching the red zone. On a first down, Peppers beat Witten’s block and appeared to have a great shot at Elliott for a two-yard loss. But Elliott was too quick and strong, so he slid through Peppers’ arms and picked up 12 yards, which set up a touchdown.

Capers’ new, creative personnel tactic was his way of matching up when the Cowboys deployed two tight ends and two receivers. He wanted five defensive backs to help defend the pass. But instead of playing traditional nickel, he went with better run-stopping personnel. He lined up three defensive linemen and two outside linebackers for a five-man front, just as he would in his base 3-4 defense, and moved Clay Matthews to the lone inside linebacker (rather than the usual two in the nickel).

The rushing stats alone show it didn't work. The Packers probably played best when Capers ran his normal stuff, though that didn’t exactly slow down Elliott, either. Capers also eased his best run-stopping defensive lineman, Mike Pennel, back into game action (13 snaps) in his first game after serving a four-game drug suspension. Pennel, a long-armed 332-pounder, is stouter than Guion. If he were in better football shape, you have to think he’d have played a lot more. Maybe he should have anyway. They badly needed him this game.

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We actually got a glimpse of how Capers might best match up with Elliott or another top back. His best run-stopping group was when he played Nick Perry and Datone Jones at outside linebacker, and Pennel and first-round pick Kenny Clark on the defensive line.

That group was on the field when the Cowboys had a first down on the Packers’ 14 early in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys had three receivers in the game, so Capers matched with nickel. Along with Pennel, Clark, Perry and Jones up front, the inside linebackers were Blake Martinez and Jake Ryan, the usual nickel linebackers. Matthews wasn’t even on the field.

Elliott ran up the gut, but Pennel shed his blocker and Clark held his ground against a double team. That forced Elliott to bounce outside, but Jones set a strong edge, and Elliott went down for a three-yard loss.

The problem is, Capers stayed with that group for another snap, and the Cowboys threw a play-action pass. Matthews wasn’t on the field, so the pass rush suffered, and Dak Prescott had all day to hit Witten for a 13-yard gain.

That’s the tough spot Elliott puts you in. He won the day in the big matchup of No. 1s, and he won it big. Maybe the Packers picked up some tips for the next time.

Extra points

» If coach Mike McCarthy is looking for ways to help out Aaron Rodgers, who is struggling from the pocket, one way is to have more designed calls to get him out of the pocket on bootlegs and sprint outs. But to make that work, McCarthy will have to run Eddie Lacy 20 to 25 times a game.

Whether he'll be able to do that this week will depend on Lacy’s health. When Lacy ran to his right Sunday, you couldn’t tell he was playing injured, but when he ran left his sprained left ankle was an issue. It looked like he was trying to cut off his right foot, not the left as he should.

» Second-round pick Jason Spriggs saw his first extended action when he replaced Bryan Bulaga (back injury) at right tackle for the final 10½ minutes of the game. Spriggs looked improved from training camp, when he tended to stand up and lunge at pass rushers. He showed more patience Sunday in waiting for the rusher to come to him, and was textbook keeping his hands inside and on top of the numbers when blocking the Cowboys’ best rusher, Demarcus Lawrence, on one play. He also handled a stunt without issue.

Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week during the season. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1 and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty

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