On Sunday, the Green Bay Packers return to the site of Aaron Rodgers’ most recent playoff heroics to take on the Dallas Cowboys. David Halprin of Blogging the Boys was kind enough to answer some of our questions about the Cowboys and provide insight into their strengths and weaknesses.
APC: After an All-Pro rookie season, Ezekiel Elliott has gotten off to a slow start in 2017, averaging 3.6 yards per attempt and only reaching the end zone three times thus far. Is his prolonged legal battle with the NFL solely to blame or have other forces contributed to his struggles?
I would say his issues with the suspension and court battles have basically nothing to do with his slow start to the 2017 season. There are three main factors slowing him down: 1) The Cowboys line just isn't playing as well as they did last year. 2) Dak Prescott is not playing as well as he did last year, allowing teams to load up to stop the run. 3) The Cowboys have played a group of pretty good defenses to start the year, including the Broncos who are shutting down everyone's running game. We'll talk a little more about the line since you asked about it later, but that is a big issue. Also, the Cowboys passing game isn't making opposing defenses pay for loading the box against Zeke. Dak needs to be more consistent in the passing game. That will back teams up and may open up a little more room for the run game. Last week against the Rams, the running game finally started to look a little more like its normal self.
APC: Demarcus Lawrence has outperformed every pass-rusher in the NFL through four weeks, leading the league in both sacks and pressures. Does this start constitute a true breakout or has health issues in the past simply obscured his abilities?
Health issues have definitely been an issue in the past, they have held him back. He also had a suspension last year to deal with, so his production has fluctuated and never reached a breakout performance. This year, everything has come together. He's always appeared to have the physical talent and skill to be a feared pass rusher, and he's showing it now. He's not overly fast around the edge, but he does have good technique and he's deceptively strong on the bull rush. Of course, this is a contract year for Lawrence, so maybe that has something to do with it.
APC: The Cowboys' offensive line lost Ronald Leary and Doug Free this offseason. How has La'el Collins' shift to tackle unfolded thus far, and how does this year's line compare to those in past seasons?
As mentioned above, this has turned into a real area of concern for the Cowboys. Collins is a player everyone believes will be a very good right tackle at some point, but right now he's having his struggles. He's not awful, but he's also not as consistent as he needs to be. It may be a case of getting comfortable playing out at tackle again, so by season's end his natural ability may begin to show. Replacing left guard Ron Leary has proven to be difficult. Chaz Green and Jonathan Cooper have both taken shots at it, but neither has shown that they are ready to be a long-term solution. Having problems with these two positions has been a major issue for the Cowboys, both in the run game and to some extent in the passing game. This has affected the chemistry along the entire line, which is playing only okay after a couple of seasons as an elite unit.
APC: If tasked with game planning against the Cowboys, how would you attack them on offense? On defense?
Playing against their offense, I would stack the box an never allow them to get their running game going. They really rely on the running game to create a rhythm and to control the clock; job number one for any defense is to take that away from them. Then, do what you can to slow down their "third-down conversion machines", Jason Witten and Cole Beasley. I'd take my chances making the Cowboys throw intermediate-to-long than letting them eat me up with the underneath stuff.
Against their defense, attack the middle of the field, especially if Sean Lee isn't playing. Jaylon Smith has had trouble in coverage, as has safety Jeff Heath. As a unit they are not tackling as well as they should be, so pound them in the middle, then thrown over top in the middle after they start creeping up. Utilize your running backs in the passing game.
APC: Finally, it's prediction time. Which team wins on Sunday and why?
The Cowboys win a squeaker on a Dan Bailey field goal, 24-23. The Cowboys are desperate to get back on track and they will be at home. The offensive line will finally have a good game for the entire game, and that will make all the difference.
We'd like to thank David and Blogging the Boys for answering our questions. Be sure to check out our Q&A session over there, as well as their fantastic coverage of all things Cowboys. As always, keep your internet machines tuned to Acme Packing Company this Sunday for our comprehensive game-day coverage of Packers vs. Cowboys.