Packers vs. Cowboys: Essential matchups in Week 6 contest

Oct 9, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers defender Kenny Clark celebrates after recovering a fumble by the New York Giants in the second quarter at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Dan Powers/The Post-Crescent via USA TODAY Sports
Oct 9, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers defender Kenny Clark celebrates after recovering a fumble by the New York Giants in the second quarter at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Dan Powers/The Post-Crescent via USA TODAY Sports /

Most Packer backers came away relieved about their team’s ability to finish off the mediocre New York Giants despite giving their opponent numerous opportunities to stay in the game. A much cleaner performance, however, will be in order for Mike McCarthy and company to claim victory over a 4-1 Cowboys squad that has caught fire in recent weeks.

There’s nothing sexy or exotic about this year’s version of America’s Team. They consistently bully the opposing side with a robust running attack featuring rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott and his five mauling bodyguards led by left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin.

While many astute viewers may conclude that Dallas’ offensive line is potent enough to allow just about any ball carrier to put up prodigious numbers, Elliott is truly the complete package in that he has the size to churn out tough yards in traffic, but also possesses a second gear to take it to the house once he finds an open crease.

The fifth-pick of 2016 NFL Draft is in the midst of an amazing stretch that has seen Elliott produce stat lines of 140, 138 and 134 yards while averaging 6.5 yards per rushing attempt.

Does a deep Packers’ front seven have what it takes to punch this bully in the mouth and take it out of its comfort zone of employing conservative methods to dominate the competition?

Truth is the defense won’t be able to do it alone, which leads us to examine this week’s essential matchups in this clash of NFC titans.

The No. 1 rushing offense versus the No. 1 run defense

This is hands down the biggest matchup of the week as Green Bay’s top-ranked run defense that is shutting down ball carriers by holding them to 2.0 yards per carry takes on Dallas’ formidable ground attack that leads the league in yards per game (155.2), first downs (52) and touchdowns (11).

The return of nose tackle Letroy Guion galvanized Dom Capers’ base defense versus New York with the 322-pound space eater winning his share of battles in the trenches to hold the opposition to 43 yards in four quarters.

The 29-year-old will be joined by fellow 300-plus pounder Mike Pennel who will be making his much-anticipated comeback after serving a four-game suspension. If he’s in the type of shape to be a significant contributor, the team can’t help but benefit from his presence.

When he’s at his best, Pennel is both a nimble and instinctive defender that can stay one step ahead of the offense by making quick reads.

The additional personnel should only make Mike Daniels a more effective run plugger since the Cowboys offensive line may want to think twice about double-teaming the pulverizing force.

The front three is supported by a group of young linebackers in Blake Martinez, Jake Ryan and Joe Thomas that are aggressive and quick to the ball. Thomas, in particular, is enjoying a breakthrough season by showing the ability to cut down people in space.

So what makes this Cowboys’ offensive front five so hard to stop?

Let’s begin with (Tyron) Smith whose movement skills are similar to those of a 250-pound tight end rather than a 312-pound left tackle. The speed with which he gets down the line to pick up defenders on the opposite side is unmatched.

(Travis) Frederick at center is among the best at his position as well due to his quickness off the snap and ability to engage the defender on either side of him as a reach blocker. Once the former Wisconsin Badger latches on to his man he can carry him all the way out of the play.

And then there’s (Zach) Martin who in terms of just pure run blocking is the top-ranked guard according to Pro Football Focus (PFF) with an 88.6 score. The former college left tackle is a master at picking up blitzes and stunts in the passing game as well.

This line is at its best in running outside zone plays where the goal isn’t to engage defenders head-on, but rather to move them laterally to prevent defenders at the line of scrimmage from covering their gaps.

What’s more, this unit can exert its dominance over its adversaries by double-teaming inside defenders on simple blast or dive plays where the running back hits the hole between the guard and tackle in an effort to move the pile before an inside linebacker can tackle him.

Maintaining gap integrity is essential for the Packers’ front seven. It can be a long day for the defense if players are routinely out of position.

The Silver and Blue’s stellar play up front has allowed it to consistently win the time-of-possession battle. To date, the Cowboys are holding the ball over seven minutes more than their opponents.

Only the Eagles have done better in that area thus far.

Dak Prescott versus Packers OLBs

Prescott has been nothing short of a revelation as a starting quarterback considering that no one expected much out of the rookie so soon considering the fact that he was a late fourth-round pick that saw six quarterbacks get chosen before him last April.

What’s been most impressive about him is the ease with which he’s reading coverages. He’s making checks at the line of scrimmage and consistently finding open windows to throw to.

While the running game hasn’t burdened Prescott with the responsibility of carrying the offense on his shoulders, his decision making has been nearly flawless given the fact that he doesn’t get flustered and almost always throws it to the right receiver.

His current 101.5 passer rating puts him ahead of Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck and, yes, Aaron Rodgers.

The precocious Louisiana native has recorded a league-leading 15 drives of five-plus minutes to go along with 16 marches of 10 or more plays, as per

But what the Packers are also game planning for are No. 4’s running skills.

Prescott has the athletic ability to extend plays and will lower his shoulder to gain tough yards when the situation calls for it.

Loading up the box to stop Elliott can leave the Packers susceptible to read-option and bootleg plays particularly near the goal line. So far Prescott has scored three touchdowns on runs of one, five and six yards.

Nick Perry, Clay Matthews, Datone Jones and all other outside defenders  will be counted on heavily to set the edge to prevent Prescott to get outside the defense.

Jason Witten vs Haha Clinton-Dix/Morgan Burnett/Joe Thomas

While some may view Witten as just a catch-and-fall tight end, the 14th-year veteran leads his team in targets (34) and can still consistently get open with his legendary option route, which isn’t really a designed pass pattern in the way it’s executed.

Most times Witten simply runs straight at a safety or linebacker, who will reveal whether the defense is playing in man or zone.

Zone means Witten releases, turns back to the quarterback and makes his eight to 10-yard catch. Man coverage, on the other hand, indicates that the sure-handed target will keep running directly at his defender as if he’s going deep and then break either to the left or right based on his opponent’s leverage.

This move-the-chains specialist continues to be a go-to weapon on third downs. In fact, going into 2016, of Witten’s 696 career receptions, 376 have gone for first downs, including 143 on third down.

Traditionally, the best way to stop the 34-year-old future Hall-of-Famer has been by giving him a variety of looks since the savvy veteran will quickly pick up on the defense’s intentions if a set pattern is established.

It won’t be one Packer that will try to keep Witten’s receptions to a minimum. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Morgan Burnett, Joe Thomas and Micah Hyde should all get their shots at Witten.

This is an area of concern for Green Bay since they have given the eight-most fantasy points to the tight-end position. Recent weeks have seen the defense struggle versus Julius Thomas and Eric Ebron.

Jordy Nelson versus Morris Claiborne

Three years into his NFL career, Morris Claiborne had the look of a certified first-round bust that had problems staying on the field to boot.

But over the past two seasons, the LSU-product has made remarkable strides in his coverage technique that have allowed him to shadow several deep threats with encouraging results.

Claiborne is a long-armed cornerback that can re-route receivers in man coverage. His positioning has been impeccable this year, as evidenced by last week’s performance versus A.J. Green.

The Bengals’ receiver entered Week 5 leading the NFL with 32 catches for 468 yards, but Claiborne came up big by batting away two passes intended for Green in the end zone.

Cincinnati’s star wideout was held to only 50 yards on four receptions.

The 26-year-old cover man is now being asked to shut down the opponent’s best receiver on a weekly basis and, to this point, the fifth-year defensive back has fulfilled his duties by ranking fifth overall in lowest completion percentage allowed along with fact that he’s yet to be beaten for a touchdown. Unlike in earlier seasons, Claiborne is playing with a renewed sense of confidence that hasn’t been witnessed since his days in the SEC.

It’s easy to see why he’ll be matched up with Jordy Nelson. Not only is the 32-year-old Green Bay’s best vertical threat, but Rodgers can trust him to come up with the ball in the tightest of spots in man coverage.

The way to attack the Cowboys No. 1 cornerback is with combination routes that can still throw Claiborne off his game from time to time.

Jason Schum versus Cowboys return team

What was amazing about the Packers victory against New York wasn’t the fact that their defense was able to limit the Giants to one touchdown and three field goals on the night, it was the fact that they did so while allowing favorable field position throughout the contest.

Jason Schum has quickly become public enemy No. 1 among devoted Cheeseheads in Packers News and for good reason. His pop-gun leg generated punts of 32, 33, 39 and 42 yards in Week 5.

Getting only one punt out of four to travel 40 or more yards isn’t going to cut it at the pro level, especially when you’re accommodating the return team with starting field position at their own 45 and 47 yard line on two of your attempts. The other two punts landed beyond the Giants’ 30 yard line.

On the season, Schum is averaging 40.4 yards per punt with only two of them that have landed inside the 20 yard line.

It would be unrealistic to expect the defense hold teams to 20 points or less most weeks without better field position.

It would be hard to envision the former Buccaneer lasting another week if he offers a repeat performance of last week’s prime-time horror show.

X-Factor: Does Eddie Lacy Play?

Eddie Lacy says he’s fine, as does (Aaron) Rodgers. As of Wednesday, the feature running back had yet to practice and in a surprising turn of events, James Starks has been absent from practice as well with an unspecified knee ailment.

Despite it’s showing versus Detroit, Green Bay’s offense isn’t firing on all cylinders. Lacy’s presence is much needed for the Packers to keep defenses honest.

In the event Lacy doesn’t suit up, the running game could be in the hands of practice-squad member Don Jackson who is a physical back that runs hard between the tackles. Expect contributions from Aaron Ripkowski, Randall Cobb and Ty Montgomery in the backfield as well.