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Cowboys run game will test undersized Packers’ Nitro package

Can Dom Capers play small and still slow down Ezekiel Elliott?

NFL: NFC Divisional-Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys
Green Bay will have to decide if it can defense Ezekiel Elliott using its preferred defensive back-heavy personnel.
Dan Powers-USA TODAY Sports

When nickel became the norm for the Green Bay Packers, Dom Capers made a calculated gamble that whatever his defense lost in size, particularly in the run game, it would make up with speed in the passing game.

For modern defenses, the latter presents a much greater threat given the proliferation of spread offenses and passing attacks that regularly feature four and five players in the pattern.

Drafting a player like Josh Jones and playing him at linebacker centers specifically around the idea of mitigating athletic mismatches.

But that’s only true against teams who don’t want to pound the ball down your throat.

Last year, the run game was the Cowboys calling card, riding a historic season for both Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott to the top run game in the game to go along with a dynamic passing attack.

Elliott ran roughshod over Green Bay in the regular season matchup at Lambeau Field to the tune of 28 carries for 157 yards. And that was against the top run defense in football to that point.

In the playoff game, Capers decided to stick with his guns with Morgan Burnett as a de facto linebacker, and regularly used what we’d consider traditional sub-package personnel against the best running game in the league.

Zeke once again had his way, rushing for 125 yards on 22 carries, but with Green Bay’s offense humming, it didn’t hurt the Packers as much as it otherwise may have.

This season, Dallas hasn’t yet found its rhythm offensively.

All-world left tackle Tyron Smith may not play Sunday as he battles a back injury. Ronald Leary’s departure at left guard left a gaping void Chaz Green and Jonathan Cooper have been unable to fill. And La’el Collins, as talented as he is, has been inconsistent in his move to right tackle.

None of this is to say they’re bad, as they’re still sixth in rush offense DVOA per Football Outsiders, fifth in power rush rank along the offensive line, and sixth in adjusted sack rate.

In short, they’re still a very good offensive line with All-Pros like Travis Frederick and Zack Martin in particular.

But they aren’t dominating like they did last season, sitting just 18th in adjusted line yards per Football Outsiders, a stat that measures a team’s control of the line of scrimmage.

Meanwhile, Green Bay’s defense even without Mike Daniels is 8th in adjusted line yards and 6th in adjusted sack rate.

That said, they’re just 19th in rush defense DVOA, which should be telling: the Packers can control the line of scrimmage, but aren’t finishing plays consistently.

Defensive lines can only do so much. Linebackers and safeties still have to make tackles behind them and that’s where Green Bay will be tested this week.

Can Josh Jones play big enough as the Nitro linebacker to slow down this run game? Can an aggressive defense stay disciplined and stay in their lanes?

Perhaps more interestingly, will Capers do what he did against the Bears and play more base defense?

A week after playing every snap against the Bengals, Josh Jones played 75% of snaps against the Bears as Green Bay played with two traditional inside linebackers more regularly.

That approach worked, shutting down the Bears run game, but Mike Glennon doesn’t play quarterback for the Cowboys.

Green Bay also doesn’t have to worry about an explosive passing game. Dez Bryant can’t run the way he used to. Ditto for Terrance Williams.

And Jason Witten couldn’t beat Mike McCarthy in a footrace.

Playing more base probably makes the most sense, but if they’re going to do that, Capers has to find a way to keep Jones on the field.

Last week, he took Jones off when playing Blake Martinez and Jake Ryan together, leaving Kentrell Brice as the safety opposite Haha Clinton-Dix with Morgan Burnett playing the slot.

Even if that continues to be the rotation moving forward, Capers would be wise to find ways to continue to use Jones even with more traditional heavy fronts.

This week would be a perfect time to do just that, given his relative size and strength advantage over a player like Brice and the Cowboys’ lack of playmakers in the middle of the field to exploit an occasional lapse in coverage. (Let’s also not pretend Brice is somehow Earl Thomas when it comes to defending the middle of the field.)

The potential return of Mike Daniels could render this conversation mostly moot as he can wreck opposing offenses on his own, as he showed in Week 1. With the Cowboys struggling to find a solution at left guard, Daniels could disrupt the Dallas run game on his own should be return from injury this week.

Green Bay’s defense is 31st in adjusted line yards along the interior, while the Cowboys are 8th on their offensive line.

The return of Daniels would go a long way to shoring up the interior of Green Bay’s defense, while simultaneously exploiting one of Dallas’ biggest weaknesses. If he can go this week, it could mean the Packers can play small behind him and worry less about size disadvantages thanks to line of scrimmage they could more consistently win.

In two tries, the Packers have yet to keep Ezekiel Elliott under 120 rushing yards or the Cowboys offense under 30 points.

They’ll have to come up with something if they want to win Sunday afternoon.