When the Dallas Cowboys pounded the Green Bay Packers in mid-October, Ezekiel Elliott was the difference.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers had no answer for the rookie running back. He tried the familiar and the new, but nothing worked. Elliott ran for 157 yards and the Cowboys won going away, 30-16.
The Packers’ revived offense gives them a better chance to keep up in their divisional round matchup at Dallas on Sunday. But they face the same big problem: Elliott.
If he gashes them like in the first game, it’s hard to see the Packers winning. But if Capers has to sell out to stop the run, that could turn out just as badly. He doesn’t have the cornerbacks to cover one-on-one all day.
It’s the key matchup of this game, and Capers no doubt has been obsessing over it all week. He goes in with the weaker hand. We’ll see Sunday if he can squeeze out a winner.
But to give you an idea of the quandary he’s facing, let’s look back at that game at Lambeau Field three months ago.
By Week 6, Elliott had proven to be an elite NFL running back, and Capers dug deep to deal with him. The big change was moving Clay Matthews to inside linebacker occasionally, usually when Dallas went with run-oriented personnel. He also played his base 3-4 far more than usual. Neither worked well.
Matthews played inside on only eight snaps, mostly when Dallas used multiple tight ends. And it was in a new defensive package, officially a 3-3 nickel, with in essence a five-man front; Matthews as the lone true inside linebacker; and five defensive backs.
The results show the problem in a nutshell.
Elliott averaged 4.8 yards on his five carries against that group. One was a 14-yarder, the others were for only 13 yards total. But that’s how it works with good backs, they pick up a few yards here and there, then hit you for 10-plus.
More to the point, Dallas gained 48 yards on the other three plays: a 26-yard jet sweep to receiver Lucky Whitehead, and two play-action passes that converted first downs. Those were big plays, all set up by the threat of Elliott in the backfield.
Capers used his base defense more than usual, too. It’s designed to stop the run. That meant Matthews was back at outside linebacker as part of a five-man front, with Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez at inside linebacker.
Elliott averaged 6 yards on nine carries against that group. That’s a big win for Dallas.
And against Capers’ standard nickel, with Matthews as an outside pass rusher, Elliott averaged 6.4 yards on nine carries. The Packers can’t win if that happens again.
Dallas mixes personnel, but its primary group is Elliott, a tight end and three receivers. Capers probably will have to go with some form of nickel against that. Otherwise, he’ll have a linebacker on slot receiver Cole Beasley. That won't work.
So what is Capers to do? You have to think that whatever his plan, Matthews will be in the thick of it. Maybe Capers will scrap the unusual stuff and just play Matthews at inside linebacker on most downs, like he did for half of 2014 and all '15. Maybe Datone Jones and Nick Perry will play together more on early downs. Or maybe Capers has a new tweak.
But keep in mind that Elliott will be as fresh and healthy as he could hope at this time of year. He didn’t play in the fourth quarter of Week 16 against Detroit, didn’t even dress in Week 17 because the Cowboys had clinched the No. 1 seeding, and was off last week because of the first-round bye.
“He’s going to ratchet it up,” a scout from an NFC team told me this week. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they just keep handing him the football. They don’t want Aaron Rodgers on that field at all.”
» One of the game’s other key matchups is Packers tight end Jared Cook against Cowboys safety Byron Jones.
With Jordy Nelson out, Cook will be even more important as Aaron Rodgers’ big target down the seam and over the middle. Cook's return from a high ankle sprain has helped the Packers’ offense as much as anything, and his role figures to grow.
The Cowboys don’t have a star in their defensive backfield, but they have several solid players, and Jones is as good as any of them. The 2015 first-round pick (No. 27 overall) played mostly cornerback in college and has real cover skill. You might remember his big fourth-and-five breakup on a pass to Randall Cobb in the second quarter back in October.
When Dallas has played a good tight end – Washington’s Jordan Reed, Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz – Jones has covered him. The winner of that battle Sunday could have a big say in the game's outcome.
“Jones has played against better athletes than Cook,” the scout said, “but Cook is big and can catch the ball. I don’t know that Cook can outrun Jones.”
» The Cowboys lost three games this season: two to the New York Giants, and the Week 17 throwaway at Philadelphia when they rested players.
So why did the Giants beat them twice? Because they could stop the run (tied for No. 3 in the NFL) and had excellent cornerbacks.
Elliott gained 158 yards and averaged only 3.6 yards a carry in the two games combined. Janoris Jenkins, one of the NFL’s best cover men, matched up with Dez Bryant and helped hold him to two catches for 18 yards in the two games.
The Packers don’t have the Giants’ defense. They don’t have Damon Harrison at defensive tackle stuffing the run. And while LaDarius Gunter can match up with big receivers because of his length and strength, he doesn’t have Jenkins’ speed and will need help from a safety against Bryant.
“What stops the Cowboys is personnel, not scheme,” the scout said. “The Giants beat them twice because they could cover and had good run D. Minnesota took them to the mat because they could cover. If the Packers could cover better they could get away with not having a great pass rush.”
» The Packers’ best matchup on defense probably is Julius Peppers against Cowboys right tackle Doug Free. Dallas has maybe the NFL’s best offensive line, but Free, who went to Manitowoc High School, allowed eight sacks, according to Pro Football Focus. Maybe Capers will get Matthews on Free occasionally, too.
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.