On Sunday, the Packers travel to face the Cowboys, who will be looking for revenge after being defeated on their home turf in January. The Cowboys will be especially motivated after a close loss against the Rams, which brought their record to 2-2. The Packers, for their part, will enter 3-1 after dominating the Bears on Thursday Night Football last week. I’ll examine what the Cowboys bring to the table this time around.
Strength – Ezekiel Elliott and a Good Offensive Line
The run game is central to the Cowboys offense. Dak Prescott had his worst game of the season when forced to make 50 pass attempts, with Elliott bottled up for 8 yards on 9 carries. Entering his second year, Prescott has had a generally good season so far and is at his best when Elliott gets 20+ carries.
It’s no secret that a strong run game helps out the passing attack in many ways. Being able to hand off for 4-5 yards relieves pressure off the QB and o-line. It sets up play action and lets Cole Beasley and Jason Witten thrive in the middle of the field. It also helps out the defense when the offense can eat up time of possession. Elliott is such a playmaking threat, he demands constant attention from defenses.
Weakness – Linebackers and Interior Defensive Line
Dallas has seen disappointing play from their linebackers so far this season. The Cowboys drafted middle linebacker Jaylon Smith in the second round in 2016 despite knowing he would sit out his rookie year with a severe knee injury. However, he has underwhelmed in his debut season. He, Damien Wilson, and Justin Durant have struggled to fill the absences of Anthony Hitchens and All-Pro Sean Lee. Hitchens is expected to be back, which ought to help the unit.
Not helping matters is inconsistent play from defensive tackles Maliek Collins and Stephen Paea, who has been fighting through a knee injury. Collins had a good game against the Cardinals in week 2, but he has struggled to make an impact otherwise.
Opportunity – Demarcus Lawrence
With Bakhtiari (hamstring) and Bulaga (ankle) limited in practice on Wednesday, the Packers could roll the dice with Lane Taylor and Justin McCray at tackle again. Hamstring injuries can sometimes have unpredictable recovery times. Ankle injuries can linger, get aggravated, and easily derail a player’s season. But after 10 days of rest, the Packers will probably want to get them onto the field at all costs. That’s largely because of Demarcus Lawrence, who would overwhelm a pair of guards at bookend.
Lawrence forms a highly effective edge rushing tandem with Tyrone Crawford, who seems to have found his place in Rod Marinelli’s 4-3 scheme after converting to defensive end in 2016. Lawrence is arguably the most effective edge rusher in the league right now, and he will be a constant threat to Aaron Rodgers on passing downs. Even if both Bakhtiari and Bulaga start, Lawrence will probably be spending lots of time in the Packers backfield.
Threat – Pass Defense
Despite some quality players in the secondary, including rookie CB Jourdan Lewis and safety Byron Jones, the Cowboys pass defense has been below average so far. This is unlikely to change after facing Aaron Rodgers, who dissected them in the 2016 playoffs. Demarcus Lawrence has the chance to do serious damage, but he can’t carry the defense on his own against Rodgers.
If the Cowboys need to rush 5 or more to make up for the lack of interior pressure, Rodgers will exploit man coverage. Rodgers will feast on linebackers in coverage. He’ll probably look to match up his tight ends against safety Jeff Heath. Safety Xavier Woods has been pressed into action at slot CB at times, and though he performed well, he’d face a stiff test if matched against Randall Cobb. If Lawrence doesn’t get any help, the defense will be in for a long night.