As a despondent Jordy Nelson left Lambeau Field on a cart, comparisons to last season were inevitably drawn, but the Green Bay Packers showed why their receiver room is no longer a one-man band.
We’d seen this narrative before. Nelson’s season-long absence derailed Green Bay’s offense last term, the Packers rarely unable to shake out of first gear. As he left the field in Sunday’s wild-card victory over the Giants, the same unit was in the midst of a sluggish first quarter performance. New York’s defense was in full control, and now Aaron Rodgers had lost his favorite target.
If you need reassurance the Packers can survive sans Nelson, the final three quarters inside a frigid Lambeau offered plenty. Randall Cobb forgot it’s not 2014, but as long as nobody reminds him, we may see more dazzling performances like this one. Returning from a two-game absence, Cobb turned five receptions into 116 yards and three touchdowns.
Davante Adams struggled to fill the Nelson-shaped void last season, but he stepped up Sunday, leading the Packers with eight receptions for 125 yards and a touchdown.
While there’s been no update on Nelson’s ribs injury, Packers coach Mike McCarthy admitted he “has concern” for the 31-year-old. The early forecast hardly exudes optimism, meaning Green Bay might need to lean on production from elsewhere in Sunday’s trip to Dallas.
Adams is the key. He emerged as the boundary threat the Packers hoped they drafted in the second half of the regular season, and the third-year man continued to make plays Nelson would be proud of in Sunday’s win. His five-yard touchdown was his 13th on the year.
Cobb didn’t take long to reestablish chemistry with Rodgers. Easily his best performance of the year, his timely return from an ankle injury could make a huge difference in Dallas.
But it’s not just these two Rodgers can hang his hat on. Undrafted rookie Geronimo Allison answered the call each time the Packers needed him during the regular season. At 6-foot-3, Allison’s size and length makes him a useful matchup piece.
Tight end Jared Cook has too made important plays across the middle of the field, and one who can be used to attack the middle of the Cowboys defense. In their past four games, Dallas has surrendered 391 yards and three touchdowns to opposing tight ends.
Running the football is no easy task against Dallas, but Green Bay has the pieces to get it done. Between Ty Montgomery, Christine Michael and Aaron Ripkowski, the Packers’ new-look rushing attack can be utilized in a number of ways. Michael is the better downhill runner of the three, but Montgomery’s ability to split out as a receiver makes him a matchup nightmare, as Dallas knows all too well. The receiver-turned-running back caught 10 passes for 98 yards in the Week 6 loss to Sunday’s opponents, most of his work that afternoon coming out of the backfield.
If Nelson misses the trip to Dallas, it’s evidently bad news for the Green Bay offense. Gone are 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns worth of production, and a receiver Rodgers can count on when all the chips are down.
But unlike last year, Nelson’s absence doesn’t have to be a death blow for the Packers.
LaDarius Gunter must carry momentum into Dallas
Flooding the secondary won’t be an option against Dallas’ run-heavy offense, but assuming Dom Capers beefs up his front seven to slow down Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys could look to exploit favorable one-on-one matchups outside, particularly with top receiver Dez Bryant.
LaDarius Gunter’s role Sunday is as important as any. It was his duty to follow Odell Beckham Jr. for much of the Packers’ wild-card win, just as he matched up with Julio Jones in Week 8 versus Atlanta. And the results have been impressive.
Beckham was held to just 28 yards on four catches. He did draw safety help over the top at times, and the Packers even doubled him at the line of scrimmage like a gunner in punt coverage. Beckham had three drops, a career-high, which helped, but Gunter did a nice job in blunting New York’s most dangerous weapon.
Gunter lacks the top speed to make up ground, but he wins with his impressive size and physicality. Much of the 6-foot-2, 201-pound corner’s best work comes at the line of scrimmage, and this will be important should he draw Dez Bryant in coverage on Sunday.
Beating Bryant with man-to-man coverage is key to slowing Dallas’ powerful offense. The Giants achieved this in Week 14, Janoris Jenkins following the star receiver across the formation and restricting him to a single catch for 10 yards. It’s unlikely Gunter can mirror this performance by himself, and Dom Capers will need to rely on his talented safeties to help out. But if Gunter can win with physicality at the line of scrimmage, the Packers will be able to commit more bodies to stopping the run.
Giants set blueprint on how to beat Cowboys
Ollie Connolly of All22.com wrote a great piece in December breaking down how the Giants defense restricted the Cowboys to just seven points. While the Packers don’t boast the same talent on defense as the team they just sent home, New York set a blueprint Dom Capers may look to adopt.
The Giants were aggressive, blitzing often in attempt to confuse Dak Prescott pre-snap. They were able to get home quickly and force the rookie quarterback into hurried decisions, and it paid off beautifully for defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Capers’ attempts to go blitz-heavy haven’t returned great results this season, but this high-risk approach can succeed versus Dallas.
After all, the Cowboys only lost twice all season, if you don’t include Week 17, when many of their starters either didn’t play or saw their snap count drop significantly. Both defeats were at the hands of the Giants.
New York’s success defensively was largely due to cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who followed Dez Bryant all evening long. To the point above, LaDarius Gunter’s role in this game will be pivotal. If he can replicate even a percentage of the success Jenkins had against Bryant, Capers may be able to put more focus on attacking Dallas’ elite offensive line. Matching Gunter up one-on-one with Bryant is a risky game to play, and there’s a good chance Capers calls for safety help over the top.
To have any chance of slowing the Cowboys offense, the Packers will need to find a way past Dallas’ line. Limiting Elliott on the ground and pressuring Prescott has only truly been achieved by one team, the Giants.
As Connolly writes in his piece, one of Prescott’s biggest flaws is that he locks in on his primary read. This is what made New York’s blitz-heavy approach effective.
"“Fortunately, the Cowboys’ offensive line often affords him the time to sit back and wait to come off the initial read, but with the Giants sending more than the line could block Prescott was forced to speed up his internal clock.”"
For Capers to successfully blitz Dallas with regularity and force Prescott to hurry his decisions, Green Bay’s coverage must be on point, particularly when it comes to defending Bryant. The Giants achieved this, but replicating it is easier said than done.
It might be the Packers’ greatest challenge yet.