4 Downs: McCarthy doesn't freeze
Every week I’ll share four observations after the Green Bay Packers' game. Here they are after the Packers’ 34-31 win over the Dallas Cowboys in an NFC divisional-round playoff game Sunday:
First down: Mike McCarthy made the right call when he chose not to use a timeout to freeze Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey’s 52-yard, game-tying field goal attempt with 40 seconds left. The Packers had two timeouts left, and many NFL coaches use the timeout even though the stats say kickers don’t miss any more often when a timeout is called than when one isn’t. Bailey made the kick, but having the two timeouts played a key role in Aaron Rodgers setting up the Packers’ final-play, game-winning field goal after they got the ball back with 35 seconds to play. Rodgers needed one of those timeouts to stop the clock after he was sacked with 18 seconds left. And if the Packers hadn’t had any timeouts left with 12 seconds left, Dallas wouldn’t have had to worry about covering the middle of the field because there wouldn’t have been enough time to complete a pass far enough downfield to get in field-goal range and also get lined up to spike the ball before time ran out. So Rodgers would have had to throw to the sidelines, and Dallas could have defended against that. But with the timeout, the Cowboys had to cover the entire width of the field, and that helped free Jared Cook for the 36-yard catch right along the sidelines that set up the game-winning field goal.
Second down: It’s hard to say a play from early in the first quarter was a big one in a 34-31 game in which there were three field goals in the final three minutes, but safety Micah Hyde’s sack on Dallas’ first series might qualify. The Cowboys had moved from their own 25 to the Packers’ 40 in only four plays, and it looked like they were on their way to a quick 7-0 lead. But on first down from the 40, Hyde blitzed from the slot and dropped Dak Prescott for a 6-yard loss. That put the Cowboys in second-and-16, and they weren’t able to convert in two plays. They kicked a 50-yard field goal, but for the Packers to win this was going to have to be a shootout, so any time the Cowboys were kicking field goals rather than scoring touchdowns it was a win for the Packers. It set the exact tone the Packers wanted.
Third down: Ezekiel Elliott made for some tough decisions for Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, but I’m not sure why Capers was in his nickel defense rather than dime on a second-and-21 late in the third quarter with a 28-13 lead. I’m sure Capers was concerned that with six defensive backs on the field Elliott would have a decent chance to rip off 10- to 15-yard run — the guy is that good — but it left linebacker Jake Ryan covering Dez Bryant in the slot. That’s a colossal mismatch, and Bryant caught a 19-yard pass that left the Cowboys with a short 3rd-and-2 to keep the drive alive. Dallas converted and ended up scoring a big touchdown that cut the Packers’ lead to 28-20 early in the fourth quarter.
Fourth down: The book on Aaron Rodgers has been that if you can’t sack him, you’re better off trying to contain him in the pocket than rush all out and open scrambling lanes. But that might be changing. In the first half, Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli more often than not rushed three or four and used a linebacker or defensive lineman to spy Rodgers. But Rodgers sat in the pocket with all day to throw and put up touchdowns on the Packers’ first three possessions. So Marinelli started blitzing more, often with a slot cornerback or safety. All three of the Cowboys’ sacks were by defensive backs: cornerback Orlando Scandrick and safeties Barry Church and Jeff Heath.