5 Bold Predictions for Green Bay Packers' Week 15 Matchup
The matchup is juicy for reasons other than playoff implications. Despite its struggles over the last six games without Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay still has the fifth-best offense in the league. Dallas, in turn, has the league's worst defense by far—it's giving up a whopping 426.8 yards per game.
But will going against the Packers No. 25 run defense prove to be a golden opportunity for Murray?
In a must-win situation, with two high-powered offenses facing two struggling defenses, opportunities arise for some wild results.
The following five predictions, ranked in order from most likely to occur to least likely, envision a scenario in which the Packers defense shows up, limiting Murray, missing few tackles and getting pressure on Romo. They're bold but within the realm of possibility.
Jordy Nelson Will Have 100 Receiving Yards
Though it's the most likely of the five predictions here, the fact that this is a bold statement highlights the Packers' struggles this season in a nutshell.
Still, even though Dallas has the No. 32 pass defense in the league, allowing 298.5 yards per game, it's not a given that Nelson and the Packers can exploit it if Aaron Rodgers isn't under center.
In the six games Rodgers has been out (including the Chicago game in which he only played for one drive), Nelson has had only one game with more than 100 receiving yards, versus the Giants. He was catching passes from Scott Tolzien in that game, who has a better arm and tends to air the ball out more than Matt Flynn.
However, the No. 15 Giants secondary is certainly stronger against the pass than the Cowboys, so Nelson may have greater success on Sunday.
A matchup against Brandon Carr, who should shadow Nelson as the Packers move him around the field, is also one Nelson can win.
Carr allows catches on 61.1 percent of passes thrown against his coverage, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and his tackle efficiency is severely lacking, as he has one missed tackle in every six tackle attempts.
Even though the Packers won't plan around Flynn's arm, Nelson has proven to be versatile in Rodgers' absence, demonstrating an ability to catch passes out of the slot and on screens, as well as on the outside using wheel routes and fades.
Those 100 yards could add up in small amounts over multiple receptions.
Tony Romo Will Throw an Interception in the 4th Quarter
Yes, Tony Romo has made improvements in terms of taking care of the football. After throwing 19 interceptions in 2012, he has just seven in 2013, tied for his fewest in any season. He hasn't thrown an interception in the last two weeks.
But he still has three games left to go, and the Cowboys are in desperation mode.
Of Romo's seven interceptions this year, two have come in the fourth quarter. The key to forcing him to take risks late in the game, of course, is for the Packers to get ahead early and keep their lead—something with which they've struggled to do without Aaron Rodgers, but then again, they haven't yet faced Dallas and the absolute worst defense in the league.
Picking off Romo will be a joint effort by the Packers front seven and secondary, as interceptions begin with pressure. Green Bay's pass rush and pass coverage are both ranked No. 25 in the league by Pro Football Focus, and the Cowboys' offensive line has been efficient in pass protection this year.
Then there's the secondary's struggles in getting takeaways this season; Green Bay's defense is currently tied for the second fewest interceptions in the league with seven.
Still, Romo attempts 35 passes per game on average, and of course that number only grows if his team is behind in the second half. Moreover, the Cowboys control the clock 47.79 percent of the time in the fourth quarter of games, and if they're on the field for less time in the fourth quarter against Green Bay, it's reasonable to assume they're passing more and running the ball less.
If the Packers can force Dallas up against a wall late in the game and dare the Cowboys to pass, Romo may make a costly mistake down the stretch.
Matt Flynn Will Be Sacked Just Twice
Don't be so quick to blame the offensive line. Many of the recent sacks of Matt Flynn have been on him, and he knows that.
His knowledge of the system and accuracy are pluses, but Flynn's tendency to take too long to progress through his reads and lack of awareness of when to throw the ball away cause him to take a lot of sacks.
"A lot of that was on me," Flynn said when asked about taking 12 sacks in two games, via Fox Sports Wisconsin's Paul Imig. "I think that will start cleaning up the more comfortable I get with what we're trying to do offensively and the routes and things like that. I think I was getting hung up on a couple receivers."
Pro Football Focus only places allowance for one of those sacks on Flynn, but that's only in terms of giving himself up to them. Not getting the ball out quickly enough, even if just to throw it out of bounds, or failing to drop the ball off on a checkdown makes it harder for the offensive line to hold their blocks long enough to avoid a sack.
If Atlanta has the worst pass rush in the league, per Pro Football Focus, and still managed to sack Flynn five times, it's unreasonable to expect him to completely evade Dallas' No. 21 pass rush. And while the offensive line can't shoulder all the blame, it's still heavily implicated.
However, with the starters healthy and Derek Sherrod available to ensure Packer tackle Marshall Newhouse stays off the field, the line should be able to give Flynn enough time, provided he makes his progressions quicker.
Though he'll still go down a couple times, expect Flynn to make limiting his sacks a priority on Sunday.
Packers Run Defense Will Hold DeMarco Murray to Fewer Than 100 Rushing Yards
DeMarco Murray is one of the most talented running backs in the league in terms of big-play potential. He's averaging the third-highest yards per carry (5.3) and he's seventh in yards after contact with 2.7, per Pro Football Focus.
He's also coming off a Week 14 performance in which he gashed the Bears' run defense for 146 yards.
Still, Murray has surpassed 100 rushing yards in only one other game this year (against the St. Louis Rams), and that was because he had 26 carries. Don't necessarily believe the argument that because the Cowboys are looking to increase his carries he'll have more yards—he's had more than 15 carries but fewer than 90 yards in three games this year.
The reason this prediction is a bold one is that the Cowboys' offensive line is ranked by Football Outsiders as the seventh-best in the league in terms of run-blocking. Green Bay's front seven deserves praise for limiting Jackson, but Atlanta's OL ranked 20th in blocking.
It won't be an easy task, but one way Green Bay can ensure it will shut down Murray is to get ahead early and force Romo and the Cowboys to turn to the pass.
Packers Defense Will Have Fewer Than 5 Missed Tackles
Missed tackles has been the single biggest defensive problem for the Packers this season.
Both the front seven and the secondary have been guilty. Twice the defense missed 11 tackles in one game (Week 1 at San Francisco and Week 12 vs. Minnesota), per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). The fewest number of missed tackles (three) came both in Week 7 vs. Cleveland and last week vs. Atlanta.
Missed tackles had become such an epidemic that before the Falcons game the coaching staff ran drills as though the team were back in training camp. In regular-season practices, especially on a team suffering from so many injuries, the aggression and physicality are dialed down, but the Packers have been working on being more physical.
Other issues they've identified include taking the correct angle on a receiver or runner and finishing.
"A lot of times we'll get bodies on them, but just sometimes we don't finish," Packer safety Chris Banjo told Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "So just finishing and getting a guy on the ground."
That drilling seems to have worked, as Green Bay tied its season low in missed tackles last Sunday against Atlanta—in a snowstorm, no less.
Still, limiting missed tackles to fewer than five against Dallas won't be easy. DeMarco Murray is a highly talented cutback runner and Dez Bryant is seventh in the NFL in tackles broken or avoided (12), per Pro Football Focus.
However, the secondary is in a groove after the second half of the Atlanta game, which was one of its better showings all season. Combined with the increased focus on limiting missed tackles in practice, expect the Packers to continue to keep the number down against Dallas.