Week 5 ended in a thriller for the Packers and Cowboys, which should’ve been surprising to no one. Much like their last meeting at AT&T Stadium, Aaron Rodgers came out the victor. It’s tempting to say he carried the team to victory, but he couldn’t have done it without a couple teammates stepping up in a big way. I’ll detail two of them, and explain how a third’s exit from the game almost derailed the victory.

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The Ascendance of Blake Martinez

Blake Martinez entered the year as mostly an afterthought for many. Between the hyped ‘Nitro’ package with Morgan Burnett and Josh Jones, the steady improvement of Jake Ryan and Joe Thomas, and the continued storyline of Clay Matthews playing inside, it briefly seemed Martinez might be the odd man out. He was dismissed by some as an extremely high-effort guy who nonetheless wasn’t big enough to stop the run nor athletic enough to hold up in coverage. Through the past several games, Martinez has proven both points wrong.

Leading the team in tackles, Martinez was a force throughout the game. He played almost all snaps at inside linebacker (70 of a possible 74), staying on the field for both running and passing downs. His reliability in the middle of the field was especially valuable after Morgan Burnett left the game. His presence helped mitigate a potential disaster, as the Packers were already scrambling to replace Burnett’s contributions as a slot cornerback.

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Aaron Jones Runs Away With Starting Job

Standing at 5’9” and weighing 208 lbs., Aaron Jones was often pegged for a scatback with good hands and some skill at pass protection. Despite rushing for over 1700 yards in his senior season alone, many felt he didn’t have the size to withstand the rigors of a featured back role in the NFL. Drafted in the fifth round, one round after the more traditional workhorse runner Jamaal Williams, not much more was expected of him. Jamaal Williams fits the mold of a one-cut Packers RB like a glove, the kind of hard hitter who heats up as the weather gets colder. Williams also showed aptitude for pass protection, which helped get him the nod as Ty Montgomery’s backup to open the season.

And yet, even with Williams a full practice participant for the week, Jones saw all but 7 snaps (53 out of a possible 60). Aaron Ripkowski saw 7 snaps, and Williams only saw 2. The Packers’ faith in Jones paid off, as he came away with 125 yards and 1 TD on 19 carries. Jones showed the world that his performance against the Bears as no fluke, and his emergence allows the Packers to be cautious with Montgomery’s injury.

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Burnett Still Key Despite Safety Depth

This game saw Morgan Burnett play a relatively low 63.5% of snaps (47 out of a possible 74). Burnett might be the biggest domino piece on defense, as he plays extensively at safety, linebacker, and slot cornerback. His absence in the fourth quarter helped allow the Cowboys to engineer a final drive that lasted almost 9 minutes (unfortunately for the Cowboys, that was about a minute too short).

Thanks to stellar performances by Martinez and Clay Matthews, who played some of his 68 snaps inside next to Martinez, Burnett’s absence was not as urgently felt at linebacker. Jake Ryan played half the game’s snaps in the Packers’ base set next to Martinez, and Josh Jones stepped in for Ryan when the Packers went to a subpackage. Even without Joe Thomas, the Packers overcame the void at inside linebacker without much issue.

Unlike at linebacker, there was no good backup plan in place for cornerback. An early injury to Kevin King meant Damarious Randall had to stay on the perimeter, and so slot cornerback came down to Quinten Rollins and Josh Jones. Kentrell Brice seemed limited from an ankle issue that briefly took him out of the game, so Josh Jones was already needed at strong safety as well as linebacker. That left Rollins mainly in charge of the slot, and he was usually a major liability in coverage. Josh Hawkins eventually came in so Randall could kick inside to the slot, which was probably their best option without King on the perimeter and Burnett in the slot.

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