NFL Playoffs 2017: B/R's NFL1000 Scouting Guide to the Divisional Round
Welcome to Bleacher Report's NFL1000 playoff preview, a weekly series where we'll use the power of the 17-man NFL1000 scouting department to bring you fresh insights into the league each weekend.
Here, we'll take a closer look at the biggest matchup in every divisional game and analyze how the two teams fared when pitted against each other earlier in the season.
The NFL1000 team is composed of:
- Doug Farrar: Lead scout
- Cian Fahey: Quarterbacks
- John Middlekauff: Running backs/fullbacks
- Marcus Mosher: Wide receivers/tight ends
- Mark Schofield: Wide receivers/tight ends
- Duke Manyweather: Offensive tackles
- Ethan Young: Offensive guards/centers
- Joe Goodberry: AFC defensive ends
- Justis Mosqueda: NFC defensive ends
- Charles McDonald: Defensive tackles
- Zach Kruse: 3-4 outside linebackers
- Derrik Klassen: 4-3 outside linebackers
- Jerod Brown: Inside linebackers
- Kyle Posey: Cornerbacks
- Ian Wharton: Cornerbacks
- Mark Bullock: Safeties
- Chuck Zodda: Special teams
How Can Seattle Stop the High-Octane Falcons Offense on the Road?
Written by NFL1000 Safeties Scout Mark Bullock
Outright stopping the offensive powerhouse that coordinator Kyle Shanahan has put together in Atlanta is a tough job. The Seahawks, though, have as good a chance as anyone of containing the Falcons. The first task is to stop Atlanta from being multidimensional. Back in Week 6, the Seahawks did just that. Atlanta ran for 52 yards on 18 carries and a measly 2.9 yards per attempt.
Seattle also came prepared for the deadly play-action passing attack Shanahan runs. The Seahawks constantly had a defender—typically a linebacker but occasionally a safety—ready to turn and run to prevent the deep over routes that quarterback Matt Ryan looks to hit over the middle of the field off play action.
With the running and play-action games negated early on, Atlanta had to lean on its passing attack.
The Seahawks are known for their Cover 3 zone scheme, but against the Falcons they played far more man coverage in the opening half. The Seahawks had success playing Cover 1, matching up in man coverage against tight ends and receivers, leaving two linebackers to account for whichever running back the Falcons had in the backfield.
That somewhat surprised Atlanta, which found its normal Cover 3 beaters were now taken away because the Seahawks were in man coverage. With all of these factors combined, the Seahawks limited the Falcons offense to just three points in the first half.
However, in the second half, Seattle went back to more of its standard zone coverages, presumably to counter a few different looks—particularly three-tight end sets, that the Falcons threw at them.
That appeared to cause communication issues as cornerback Richard Sherman had a couple of huge coverage busts, which led to the Falcons' scoring three touchdowns in the third quarter. Seattle also lost some of its discipline in the second half in the play-action game, allowing the Falcons to gain confidence and momentum.
In theory, the game plan for the Seahawks would be to go back to the Cover 1 man coverage scheme, given its success in the first half.
However, Seattle has had two major changes to the defense since that game. First, strong safety Kam Chancellor returned from injury. This should improve their run defense, which already performed well in that contest. The second major change is the loss of free safety Earl Thomas to a broken leg.
Thomas is a game-changing player. Without him in the deep middle of the field, the Seahawks may be reluctant to leave Sherman in pure man coverage against receiver Julio Jones. That isn't a slight on Sherman in any way, as he's a fantastic cornerback. But Thomas has the range and instincts to sit in the middle of the field and still get out on top of Jones on a deep route down the sideline.
His replacement, Steven Terrell, doesn't have that ability—very few safeties do.
The Seahawks have already shown more two-deep safety looks since Thomas was injured, though they have tried to stick to their Cover 3 philosophy. They may use those two-deep safety looks against the Falcons to keep one safety over the top of Jones.
Seattle may also stick to its more recognizable Cover 3 zone, but that would leave it vulnerable to a variety of Cover 3 beaters the Falcons have in their playbook. They can typically counter those with a mix of pressure and Thomas' range to patrol the alleys from the middle of the field.
With Terrell, the Seahawks may find the Falcons can hit the Cover 3 beaters, dig routes, four verticals, scissors concepts, etc., that Thomas usually takes away.
How the Falcons Can Contain Russell Wilson, Thomas Rawls to Take Down Seattle
Written by NFL1000 Defensive Tackles Scout Charles McDonald
Since the first matchup in Seattle, the Falcons' defense has grown as the team has relied heavily on its young playmakers. Rookies Keanu Neal and Deion Jones have become dynamic players on defense over the second half of the season. Second-year pass-rusher Vic Beasley had a breakout campaign in leading the NFL with 15.5 sacks and six forced fumbles. The trio has collected 12 forced fumbles, while Jones has a pair of pick-sixes and Beasley had a strip-sack for a touchdown.
Atlanta has used Beasley as a spy against dual-threat quarterbacks this year. In its first matchup against Seattle, Beasley spent a good chunk of snaps sitting behind the defensive line waiting for it to collapse the pocket a little before chasing the quarterback in and out of it.
With Beasley handling the spy duties, Neal and Jones will be tasked with locking down the middle of the field. The two had inconsistencies in coverage in their first matchup against Seattle, but it's an area they've become more comfortable in each week.
Russell Wilson and Thomas Rawls are a dynamic duo in Seattle's backfield, but the offensive line hasn't been able to give them the space or protection they require on a weekly basis. The Falcons will need Grady Jarrett to lead the charge up front again if the Falcons plan on containing Rawls.
Atlanta has been successful this season using stunts and gap-exchange assignments between Jarrett, Jones and De'Vondre Campbell out of overload sets to stop the run. Look out for that as it tries to confuse the Seahawks offensive line Saturday afternoon.
What Can We Take Away from the Previous Seattle-Atlanta Matchup?
Written by NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar
When the Seahawks beat the Falcons 26-24 at CenturyLink Field in Week 6, both defenses were different. The Falcons had the efforts of rookies Keanu Neal, Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell, but they weren't playing at the level they are now.
As the season has progressed, the particulars in Atlanta's outstanding defensive draft have come to define this unit. That defense was fairly stout against Seattle's run game, allowing just 72 yards on 27 carries, but it also gave up three rushing touchdowns—two to Christine Michael (who isn't even on Seattle's roster anymore) and one to Alex Collins.
Rawls was injured at the time. If his 27-carry, 161-yard performance last weekend is any indication, Atlanta's defense is in for a fight it didn't have last time. Rawls is more powerful than either Michael or Collins, and the Seahawks revamped their blocking schemes to include hybrid man-on-man concepts against Detroit to great effectiveness.
Atlanta's offense poses the same challenge it did back then, and it's a severe one.
The Falcons do a lot in the pre-snap phase to create confusion and matchup disadvantages among enemy defenses. They'll motion their backs to the outside of the formations, run crossers with two-tight end sets and line up Julio Jones just about anywhere.
Famously, in the last Seahawks-Falcons matchup, Sherman committed an uncalled pass interference on Jones late in the game as Jones beat Sherman badly on an in-cut; at that point, Sherman was just trying to prevent the game-winning touchdown.
The Seahawks have Chancellor for this contest, which they did not in Week 6. However, the loss of Earl Thomas is a severe blow to this defense, and it's a unit that hasn't been tested the way the Falcons will test it.
Thomas is the NFL's best center fielder; his range and recovery speed are irreplaceable attributes. Seattle will have to try to cover for his absence with scheme, as it can't do it with personnel. Thus, you may see more two-deep looks from a secondary that usually plays Cover 1 and Cover 3. And with Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel as the receiver corps, the Falcons demand near-perfect play from any secondary facing them.
The one thing Seattle must do to pull the upset is to pressure Matt Ryan as much as possible. This was a major factor in its Week 6 win. In addition, linebacker Bobby Wagner's excellence as a run-blitzer kept Atlanta's ground attack silent. If any of these things aren't done consistently, the Falcons could run away with it.
Is There Any Hope for the Houston Texans Against the Top-Seeded Patriots?
Written by NFL1000 Defensive Ends Scout Justis Mosqueda
According to OddsShark, the Houston Texans are between 15- and 17-point underdogs against the New England Patriots. For reference, Clemson's massive upset of Alabama during this past Monday's national title game was only a 6.5-point line.
Most fans and media members have written off the Texans, and for good reason. Toward the end of the season, Houston benched starting quarterback Brock Osweiler despite his signing a $72 million contract last offseason—just for Tom Savage to lose his starting gig to a concussion. That opened the door back up for Osweiler.
In a quarterback-led league, Houston doesn't have a good one, and it's facing Tom Brady, a 12-time Pro Bowler who has 28 passing touchdowns and just two interceptions in 12 games this season. That's with the Patriots coming off a bye week, too.
On the road, in eight games, the Texans have posted just 118 points, an average of 14.75 per game, which is the second-worst mark in the league—only behind the Chicago Bears, who were winless on the road. Houston had a 2-6 record, beating the 3-13 Jacksonville Jaguars and the 8-8 Indianapolis Colts by a combined eight points.
If the Texans are going to advance to the AFC Championship Game, the win will come from efforts on the defensive side of the ball.
In the red zone, Houston needs to stop both heads of the Patriots' offensive machine, as Brady, an MVP candidate, can score efficiently through the air, and running back LeGarrette Blount led the NFL in rushing touchdowns with 18, just one season after 11 was the league's highest mark.
Point blank: Houston can't let New England get past the 25-yard line if it doesn't plan on giving up six to eight points. Luckily for the Texans, with tight end Rob Gronkowski on injured reserve, the Patriots are lacking big-play targets in the air, and Blount isn't the type of back to rip off explosive runs consistently.
What does that mean? It gives Houston the option to play its defensive backs in press-man coverage more often, which can also free up numbers to send on run blitzes. That should help stop the Patriots' slow, chippy approach to breaking down defenses.
Do the Texans have the personnel for that? They sure do.
Four of Houston's secondary members—Kevin Johnson (14th), A.J. Bouye (20th), Johnathan Joseph (25th) and Kareem Jackson (35th)—could be No. 1 cornerbacks on several NFL squads, according to Bleacher Report's NFL1000's regular-season grading.
While star inside linebacker Brian Cushing is on the decline, Benardrick McKinney, who can do anything from blitz Brady to drop into coverage one-on-one against tight end Martellus Bennett, ranks ninth overall among 3-4 inside linebackers this season, per the same grading program.
Houston doesn't need to blitz often on passing downs. It doesn't work often against Brady, who is more than willing to get the ball out of his hands quickly. Instead, blitzing can be used more in the ground game to set up 3rd-and-6-type of situations, where the Texans can sit back, play press against non-explosive pass-catchers and try to get home with four pass-rushers.
That's a fine approach if you can win that way, but not everyone has the horses to get to a passer without a blitz. NFL1000's top-rated 3-4 outside linebacker is Jadeveon Clowney, and the fourth-rated 3-4 outside linebacker is Whitney Mercilus, two pass-rushers who showed up early and often in Houston's 27-14 win against the Oakland Raiders in the Wild Card Round.
One point of concern for the Patriots has to be their book-end situation, as Nate Solder is NFL1000's 18th-ranked left tackle and Marcus Cannon is the 14th-ranked right tackle. They aren't a horrible duo, but when they're going against the top 3-4 outside linebacker pairing in the NFL, they are mismatched.
If the Texans can come into the contest with a disciplined game plan and don't sway from that style of play, they have a chance to keep it close. It'll come down to execution, not whiteboard theorizing, but close games in the NFL are a coin flip. Those are better odds than anyone is giving Houston right now.
What Can We Take Away from Previous New England-Houston Matchup?
Written by NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar
There are several reasons the Texans have been given a minuscule shot to pull off what would be a ginormous upset in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The primary reason is that Houston's passing offense, led by Brock Osweiler, tends to resemble a tire fire more than it does a passing offense, but we'll get to that in a moment.
Another reason is the 27-0 thrashing the Patriots put on Houston in Week 3. This was a game in which Tom Brady was off the field thanks to the Deflategate scandal. Backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett led a rushing attack with a huge, confusing number of read-option concepts that left the Texans defense unable to respond.
I wrote about the outstanding game plan Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels put together back then, and I remain impressed at the Patriots' seemingly inexhaustible ability to adapt to their personnel.
Brissett was green but could run, and the Patriots surrounded him with the kind of power/counter/trap-option stuff you used to see from the 49ers in the Jim Harbaugh days. It was a total schematic victory.
That said, we won't see any of that option stuff from Brady. Nobody carves up a defense like No. 12, but he will have his challenges here. Houston's defense recovered from that minor disaster to post some excellent performances through the second half of the season.
If you watched the Texans' Wild Card Round win over the Raiders, you saw why that defense succeeds: great cornerback and safety play buttressed by a ton of pressure up front and heady linebacker play.
Brady is, of course, aware of all this.
"He's had an incredible year," Brady said this week, per the Patriots' media department, of A.J. Bouye, the former special teams ace who has had a revelatory season as a shutdown cornerback. "What a great young player and great future that he has. I mean he's just shut a lot of people out over the course of the season. He seems like he's a feisty young player. He's certainly not afraid to get in there and play in the run game, but really his coverage skills are very impressive for someone of his size."
The 6'0", 191-pound Bouye isn't the only one who's balling out right now.
In the second half of the season and into the first round of the playoffs, Bouye has allowed an opponent passer rating of 59.6, per Pro Football Focus, but Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson have been heady as well. Jackson is the man who can slip into slot coverage seamlessly, which is always an important thing against a Patriots offense that presents all kinds of concepts on inside routes.
Moreover, Jadeveon Clowney has been an absolute wrecking ball at both end and outside linebacker in Houston's hybrid fronts, and Whitney Mercilus is just as effective as a pass-rusher, if not more so. New England's tackles will have their work cut out for them, and we're not even factoring in the efforts of underrated guys like rookie defensive tackle D.J. Reader. The Texans must endeavor to pressure Brady right up the middle—if you let him step up to throw, it's all over.
Houston's defense has no margin for error, of course, because the offense has been inconsistent-to-God-awful all season, and the primary agitator there is Osweiler. At no time has the expensive free-agent acquisition appeared cognizant of his read structure, able to bail out and reset under pressure or able to stick throws into tight windows.
This is the real issue with the Texans' chances—their offense just isn't up to it, no matter how good their defense has become. And this will likely become a referendum for the franchise in the offseason.
Is There a Way to Slow Down Le'Veon Bell and the Steelers Offense?
Written by NFL1000 Running Backs Scout John Middlekauff
The simple answer is no, the Chiefs can't slow down the Pittsburgh Steelers offense. But if Kansas City wants to advance to the AFC Championship Game, it needs to neutralize them somehow. Le'Veon Bell is the best running back in the league for a reason: He can do it all. Bell just destroyed a Miami defense during Wild Card Weekend that was led by Vance Joseph, who became the Denver Broncos' head coach Wednesday.
The Chiefs will also need to implement a new game plan Sunday, because the one they used in Week 4 against Bell and the Steelers offense failed in a 43-14 loss.
Bell has run for 1,002 yards during a seven-game winning streak that started in Week 11. He has rushed for fewer than 100 yards only once during that span—Week 15 against the Bengals. While Cincinnati didn't win, it did show an interesting blueprint to slow down Bell, and it wasn't complicated.
The Bengals did an excellent job of gang tackling. There were always multiple defenders flying to the football. They were consistently breaking down in space against Bell and did not miss many tackles. If you leave your feet and dive, he will make you look silly.
Chiefs safety Eric Berry will need to play a big role as a run-filler while balancing his coverage responsibilities and keeping an eye on Antonio Brown. This will be a challenging task, but Berry could be the X-factor if KC can slow down these two potent weapons.
The Bengals got an early lead and helped faze Bell out of the game plan in the first two quarters in Week 15. They were up double digits early in the first half and made Pittsburgh abandon the run game. Despite the early deficit, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger still hit big plays in the pass game and helped regain control in the fourth quarter.
Because of the expected weather in KC—30s and the potential for rain and snow, per Weather.com—it will be difficult to be successful in the air, so getting an early lead is imperative for the Chiefs.
Cincinnati's defensive line also dominated the line of scrimmage. It was consistently getting a push and doing a great job of keeping its gap integrity. With Bell's patience, vision and elusive nature, trying to be a hero and leaving your gap will lead to explosive plays. It happens every week.
The problem for the Chiefs is they are one of the worst run defenses in the NFL and are without top linebacker Derrick Johnson, who tore his Achilles in Week 14. They will need their two blue-chip defensive tackles, Dontari Poe and Chris Jones, to control the Steelers offensive line. If not, Pittsburgh should advance to the AFC title game.
How Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce Can Beat the Steelers with Explosive Plays
Written by NFL1000 Receivers/Tight Ends Scout Mark Schofield
Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce are two vastly different players who can, surprisingly, beat you in similar ways: They are matchup nightmares for a defense.
For Kelce, look for Kansas City to use a lot of "Y-iso," where it puts the tight end by himself on one side of a field in a three-by-one alignment, with three receivers to the other side of the formation. That forces the defense to pick its poison and decide whether it will defend Kelce with a cornerback, safety or linebacker.
The 6'5", 260-pound Kelce's not only big enough to dominate against most cornerbacks using his size and frame, but he is also a better athlete than most linebackers and safeties. In addition, he has the route-running skills of a wide receiver.
Y-iso can get the Chiefs favorable matchups. Kelce is skilled at running pivot routes, cutting inside and breaking outside to the flat. That sets him up for crossing routes later in the game, which can allow him to take advantage of his ability after the catch.
They can use a similar design with Hill. Some of Kansas City's most explosive plays with the rookie receiver have come with him lined up in the backfield. It can try to get Hill isolated on a linebacker in coverage, or even while he's running the ball, and capitalize on his game-breaking speed.
In addition, starting him out of the backfield and motioning him to one side of the field forces a defense to commit in coverage right before the snap, giving quarterback Alex Smith a good read of the secondary. Look for Hill to move around a lot before most plays when he's in the game.
Something Kansas City might look to do is to use that Y-iso formation and then align Hill as the running back in the backfield to that side of the offensive set. That puts the defense in a bind. Do you overload to that side of the field? Probably, but then you create a numbers advantage for the offense on the other side. The skill sets of both Kelce and Hill are probably keeping Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Keith Butler from enjoying a good week of sleep.
What Can We Take Away from Previous Kansas City-Pittsburgh Matchup?
Written by NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar
In Week 4, the Steelers set the tone for their offense on their first play from scrimmage, when Ben Roethlisberger hit Sammie Coates for a 47-yard pass on a go route, beating cornerback Marcus Peters along the way. Peters got turned around on the first of a bunch of big plays for the Steelers in a decisive 43-14 Pittsburgh victory.
This win came off a 34-3 embarrassment at the hands of the Eagles and set the tone for the rest of the Steelers' season. Roethlisberger hit multiple receivers for his five touchdowns, and the game plan was specifically designed to go after Kansas City's aggressive man coverage—crossers all over the place, multiple route concepts coming out of receiver bunches and deep routes from speed receivers testing the limits of Kansas City's secondary athleticism.
To say the least, the Chiefs lost in all those categories. Roethlisberger finished his day with 22 completions on 27 attempts for 300 yards and those five touchdowns. Such an offensive output forced Kansas City to play catch-up, a concept it couldn't grasp with Alex Smith leading the charge. While Roethlisberger hit four of his five passes over 20 yards in the air for 146 yards and three touchdowns, per Pro Football Focus, Smith countered with one deep pass (incomplete) in the entire game.
That's not a sustainable model of success against any explosive offense, no matter how good your defense generally is, and the Steelers have already shown they have Kansas City's number.
Clearly, head coach Andy Reid has the creativity to manufacture chunk offensive plays without deep passes, and he does have a more adventurous (if not efficient) deep quarterback of late. That quarterback would be Smith, who's gone on an unexpected roll as a downfield thrower in the second half of the season.
He's attempted 24 deep passes since Week 10, per Pro Football Focus, with nine completions for 318 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. It presents an interesting balance between the Smith who has been directed throughout his career to not lose games, and this new Smith, who may at times be charged to provide transcendent passing plays.
Still, Kansas City's two most explosive offensive players don't generally benefit from Smith's airing it out. Travis Kelce, the best tight end in the NFL not named Gronkowski, has shredded opposing defenses in every possible way all season. I wrote about Kelce's excellence in late December, though he'll have to do better than the five receptions for 23 yards he amassed back then.
Also, Hill has made himself known as a dynamic threat in many ways, thrashing opponents with everything from long runs to returns. In addition, the Chiefs have done an outstanding job with their screen game in the last month or so—one Kansas City player I recently talked with said the outside blocking has undergone a major improvement recently, and it shows.
This is where Pittsburgh's defense—especially safety Mike Mitchell and linebacker Ryan Shazier—will be tested. Shazier has become the Steelers' do-it-all 'backer. He can enforce against the run just as easily as he can drop into credible coverage.
How, then, do the Chiefs deal with Big Ben and his array of nightmarish options? It's also worth noting that Bell had just returned from suspension in Week 4 and showed no rust at all—he blasted Kansas City's run defense for 144 yards on 18 carries, as well as five receptions for 34 yards.
The Chiefs' best bet might be to take a page from the concepts that have seen Pittsburgh's defense improve of late—more zone coverages, better coordination and precise alignment to receivers. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley will do everything he can to test Kansas City the same way he did before, and the Chiefs had better come up with a more powerful resistance.
How the Cowboys Can Beat Green Bay by Controlling Game Tempo
Written by NFL1000 Receivers/Tight Ends Scout Marcus Mosher
Beating an all-time great quarterback is never easy. But if the Dallas Cowboys want to keep their Super Bowl aspirations alive, they will need to beat Aaron Rodgers for the second time this season.
The Cowboys have the blueprint to beat Rodgers and the Packers. Luckily for them, it doesn't deviate much from what they like to do each week, regardless of opponent. Their path to victory throughout the year has been to rely heavily on their running attack to limit the number of possessions their defense stays on the field.
The belief is they will be more efficient in their limited possessions on offense than their opponent. Dallas' goal is to control the clock and tempo of the game so its opponent feels pressured to score every time it has the ball.
As such, on Sunday, Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys rushing attack will be the team's key to victory. In Dallas' first meeting with Green Bay, Elliott rushed for 157 yards on 28 carries. But it's not just Elliott who has found success against Dom Capers' defense. In Dallas' last four games against the Packers, it's run the ball 99 times for 641 yards. This Packers defense has had no answers for the Cowboys running game, no matter who is carrying the ball for Dallas.
Green Bay's biggest defensive weaknesses are its two inside linebackers. Both Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez finished outside of the top 32 inside linebackers in Bleacher Report's NFL1000.
In the first matchup, Dallas gashed these linebackers on the ground with misdirection and outside runs. There is a massive gap in terms of athleticism between Elliott and the two inside linebackers. If those linebackers don't play better than in Week 6, Elliott should match his rushing total from the first victory.
But the X-factor will be Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant. Bryant missed the first matchup, though it didn't matter then. However, Capers is a firm believer in playing man coverage, and that likely means Bryant will be isolated on the outside. The Cowboys will rely heavily on Elliott, but to win, they will need to convert on their outside shots to Bryant.
If Elliott can see close to 25 carries or more against the Packers, and Dak Prescott and Bryant are able to take advantage of Bryant's one-on-one matchup, the Cowboys should control the clock and wear down the Packers defense. Everyone wants to talk about Rodgers this week, but the real story of the game will be whether Green Bay can slow down the Cowboys rushing attack at all.
How Green Bay Can Exploit Dallas' Secondary
Written by NFL1000 Cornerbacks Scout Ian Wharton
The Packers cruised through one of the best defenses in the NFL last week as they defeated the New York Giants. Even without Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the Giants had elite talent and solid depth, which mattered little as Aaron Rodgers shredded them. This week against the Cowboys, Green Bay must overcome a talented, athletic back seven.
To make matters more complicated, Brandon George of the Dallas Morning News relayed Jerry Jones' comments on 105.3 The Fan regarding Mo Claiborne. The star cornerback will play Sunday as he returns from a groin injury. Claiborne's return would theoretically mean one of the starting duo—Brandon Carr or Anthony Brown—will rotate with Claiborne if he needs rest or struggles. But Carr and Brown have been a respectable tandem in the second half of the season.
With Jordy Nelson's status unclear due to a rib injury, the onus will be on Davante Adams and Randall Cobb to win their one-on-one matchups again. Cobb has struggled mightily this year, but a slot matchup against Orlando Scandrick is advantageous for the Packers. Scandrick, and the rest of the secondary, struggles to locate and play the football midair. That's deadly against Rodgers.
From my personal charting, Scandrick's allowed 12 of 23 targets to be completed for seven first downs and a touchdown in the last eight games. Only Carr has been leakier for the Cowboys, but he's also faced opposing No. 1 receivers weekly, and most of the damage he allowed came in Weeks 13 and 14. Without Nelson as a pawn to move around, the Packers should look to get creative with Cobb and tight end Jared Cook again.
Even against All-Pro safety Landon Collins, Cook had an advantage in the passing game. But Cowboys safety Byron Jones is a better pure man-coverage player. Getting Cook downfield on seam routes may not be possible, but it could open the underneath routes for Adams and even Ty Montgomery out of the backfield.
Green Bay will want isolated man coverage as much as possible to capitalize on downfield single coverage, but zone will favor Dallas because the unit swallows downfield routes well. That's why establishing the seam and sideline routes early is imperative for the Packers.
Rodgers excels at every throw possible, so it's a matter of making life easier for him. Dallas won't want to hemorrhage yards on deep comebacks and flood concepts, so if the Packers can show that hand and force Dallas into man, then it'll be up to Adams to out-athlete all of the Cowboys corners—as he should be able to—and Cobb to find open space.
Dallas doesn't have an amazing secondary, but it also rarely has coverage busts due to a conservative nature with safety help. Empty-back sets will put Rodgers at risk of feeling David Irving's wrath, but it will also force the Cowboys' hand. Expect to see the Packers go with 11 (one tight end and running back) or zero personnel (five WR) groups often.
What Can We Take Away from Previous Green Bay-Dallas Matchup?
Written by NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar
When the Cowboys beat the Packers 30-16 in Week 6, they faced a far more hesitant Aaron Rodgers than the version we've seen of late. Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott carved up a Green Bay secondary that was playing without its top three cornerbacks due to injury.
Prescott impressed by throwing for three touchdowns and 247 yards, and Green Bay was not in a position to stop him. Cornerbacks Sam Shields and Quinten Rollins were already out, and Damarious Randall went out with a groin injury in the second quarter.
Green Bay's secondary is healthier, but Prescott is also a different quarterback than he was back then—less reliant on simple game plans, more able to read the field effectively and better at aligning his athleticism with the requirements of above-average quarterback play.
One thing that hasn't changed for the Cowboys all year is their outstanding running game with Ezekiel Elliott and the best offensive line in the business. Elliott hit what was then the NFL's best run defense for 157 yards on 28 carries, and the Packers shouldn't expect anything different this time around.
Elliott was not quite his productive self in Dallas' last two regular-season games, but he had ripped off a four-game stretch just before in which he gained at least 134 yards in every contest. He's been held under 80 yards only once all season—in Week 1 against the Giants.
A week of rest for Elliott is bad news for the Packers defense. Another bit of potentially bad news for that Packers defense? Dez Bryant, who wasn't healthy in Week 6, is for this game.
However, there have been communication and route issues between Dallas' rookie quarterback and its best receiver—Prescott is more prone to rely on slot man Cole Beasley, outside guy Terrance Williams and tight end Jason Witten. That said, Bryant could be due for a few splash plays.
To counter all of this, the Packers must be able to rely on a very different quarterback than the one who took the field back then. When the Cowboys upended him, Rodgers was at the nadir of an early-season slump that had him miscommunicating frequently with his receivers and finding limited options in head coach Mike McCarthy's regressive route concepts.
In the second half of the season, McCarthy opened things up as much as he seems to be able to, and Rodgers has been stunning over the last few weeks—as accurate, functionally mobile and deadly with the deep ball as we've ever seen.
That version of Rodgers could provide all kinds of trouble to a Dallas defense that's well-coordinated but lacks a ton of top-level talent. To make up for those personnel shortfalls, the Cowboys would prefer to go with the ground-and-pound philosophy, secure in the knowledge that no quarterback can beat them if he's on the bench.
If Prescott and Elliot can lead these types of marches and Rodgers is forced to play catch-up with ever-decreasing oxygen, that Cowboys philosophy will work.