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The Cowboys' Defense Will Be Holding On For Dear Life

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The Cowboys’ charge to the NFC’s No. 1 seed has been powered mostly by their offense, which ranked third in DVOA during the regular season. You know all about the new triplets, Dak Prescott’s rookie surge, Ezekiel Elliott’s budding superstardom, and Dez Bryant’s constant big-play potential. But with Aaron Rodgers bringing his high-wire act to Jerry World for Sunday’s playoff game, the looming question is whether Dallas’s defense can wrangle Rodgers and the Green Bay offense. Because, right now, no one is wrangling Rodgers and the Green Bay offense.

The Cowboys’ D has largely been a “bend but don’t break” unit that presents a number of vulnerabilities that seem primed for Rodgers to exploit. They don’t often blitz—they brought extra pass rushers on just 23.7 percent of passing plays, well below the league average of 30.5 percent, per Pro Football Focus—preferring instead to rely on playing seven or eight in coverage. This strategy worked when the Cowboys won 30-16 in Green Bay back in Week 6. But given how terrifyingly on-point Rodgers has been in his last eight games—22 touchdown passes, zero interceptions—you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking the Cowboys had faced Randy Wright and Phil Epps that day.


Dallas ranked fifth in the league in points per game allowed (19.1) this season, but they were leaky when opponents threw on them. They finished 19th in defensive DVOA, 18th in DVOA against the pass, and 26th in passing yards allowed per game (260.4). Down the middle was a particular sore spot: Per Football Outsiders, the Cowboys ranked 28th in DVOA on passes between the numbers, and 29th on short throws (passes of 15 yards in the air or fewer) over the middle. The Cowboys also ranked 30th in DVOA against tight ends, and even though Jared Cook and Richard Rodgers are the Packers’ fifth- and sixth-most targeted pass catchers, they’ve still combined for nearly 100 targets. Chances are, if they’re open—and the Cowboys’ track record indicates they will be—Aaron Rodgers will find them.

Aaron Rodgers pretty much excels no matter where he’s throwing it, but he’s been exceptional when throwing down the middle: Per PFF, on throws covering 19 yards or less, Rodgers has 14 touchdowns and four interceptions, with a passer rating of 109.9. And on passes of just nine yards or less, Rodgers has 10 TDs, one interception, and a rating of 107.9. If you were designing a passer to take advantage of what the Cowboys’ D has been giving opposing quarterbacks, you’d come up with Aaron Rodgers.

The Cowboys are hardly an opportunistic defense, either. They managed just nine interceptions all year, which tied with the Saints and was ahead of only the Bears, Jets, Colts, and Jaguars—not exactly reassuring company. Dallas also didn’t generate much pressure, ranking 19th in sack percentage (5.7 percent). PFF credited David Irving with 17 pressures in his final three games—third-best in the league—and Irving also led the Cowboys in pass-rushing productivity (8.5 percent). Irving is a tackle who has played all four positions across the defensive line, so there’s no telling where he might line up.* But then there’s this: PFF ranked the Packers’ offensive line first in the league in pass-blocking efficiency.

Not that it matters much with Aaron Rodgers. He finished with a league-best passer rating of 93.8 when pressured, according to PFF. But in that Week 6 win at Lambeau Field, the Cowboys came up with a clever (if risky) way to stop him—and it worked:


As PFF’s Monson further explained, a three-man rush is designed to contain, to keep a quarterback in the pocket (thereby neutralizing one of Rodgers’s best weapons), rather than to create sacks. And back in October, Rodgers was still having lots of problems with mechanics and with accuracy. Now that Aaron Rodgers is that holy shit version of Aaron Rodgers again, a scheme like that might still be effective, but only to a point: Of late, Rodgers is threading passes into tight windows and with precise timing, and his famous ability to just wing it after a few seconds makes it damn near impossible for any defender to stay with a pass catcher long enough to prevent something calamitous from happening.

The Packers will officially be without Jordy Nelson, and even though Randall Cobb (five catches, 116 yards, three TDs) more than made up for Nelson’s absence last week against a terrific Giants defense, the Packers have still had trouble without Nelson over a larger sample size:


The Packers also have a 1-2 punch out of the backfield in Ty Montgomery and ex-Cowboy Christine Michael. Michael finished with just 47 rushing yards last week against the Giants, but he averaged 4.7 yards per carry.

There may be no cure for Aaron Rodgers right now. But if there’s a team capable of whipping up some preventive medicine, it’s the Cowboys. With one of the league’s best running backs, an efficient quarterback, and an offensive line among the league’s best, Dallas’s best defense may be its offense: The Cowboys ranked second in time of possession (31:41) and in time of possession per drive (3:03).




Aaron Rodgers can’t beat the Cowboys when he’s not on the field. It’ll be up to Dallas’s offense to make a long day for their defense as short as possible.

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