After getting off to a stumbling 2-5 start to the season, the Green Bay Packers roared back into the playoff picture behind their elite passing offense, headed by first-year starter Jordan Love, to finish 9-8 and squeak into the playoffs. Their prize will be to face one of the league’s best teams, the Dallas Cowboys, on the road, on wildcard weekend. Before diving into the challenges that Dallas presents, and the weaknesses they still have, first let’s take stock of what the Green Bay Packers are at this point in the season.
The biggest story of the season, and perhaps the only story that really matters long-term, is that this passing offense is on fire. Over the second half of the season, Jordan Love ranked third in PFF passing grade, third in DAKOTA, third in EPA/play, and second in CPOE. He looks like a legitimate star, and all while playing with a cast of children around him. That cast of children has been quite impressive, particularly the rookies. Dontayvion Wicks’ 2.13 adjusted YPRR ranks 22nd in the NFL and his +2.2 yards-after-catch-over-expected-per-reception ranked ninth. Jayden Reed broke Sterling Sharpe’s rookie receptions record. Tucker Kraft finished as one of the best tight ends in the league by DVOA, and Bo Melton, in a small sample, was one of the most efficient receivers in the league. This does not include second round pick Luke Musgrave, who was perfectly cromulent prior to his kidney injury, or either second year wide receiver Romeo Doubs or Christian Watson. This receiving corps is deep with options for Love, and that has helped them manage the rotating injuries the group has had.
The Packers running game struggled in the early part of the season, but over the past three weeks, no one has run the ball more efficiently than the Packers. Aaron Jones is back healthy, and the offensive line play has improved over the back half of the season. One place the offensive line rarely struggled was in pass protection, where the group has done a very solid job keeping Jordan Love clean.
Measures of pass protection from two independent sources pic.twitter.com/Bm1WEBdOVi— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) January 9, 2024
It’s not hard to see why over the back half of the season, only two offenses were more efficient than Green Bay’s. Unfortunately, one of them is Dallas, and they’ll face a pretty weak Packers defense.
While the Packers overall points allowed totals don’t look bad, they are aided by the slow pace that the Packers offense plays at. On a per-drive basis, they rank 22nd in points allowed. The pass defense, in particular, has been a problem for much of the season. There was a great deal of improvement over the final two games from this unit, but that was against two backup quarterbacks and Justin Fields. The career days they allowed to Bryce Young and Baker Mayfield are not distant memories. One area where Green Bay has struggled in the past was run defense, but over the back half of the season, Green Bay was almost bang-average in EPA allowed per rush, and only slightly below average in rushing success rate allowed. Those are numbers that are more than enough to work with. The massive concern this week is going to be in the passing game. Green Bay will be heavily reliant on their defensive front generating pressure to slow down the passing game of the Cowboys, because the secondary just does not have the talent to slow down a high-end Cowboys offense that matches up quite well with the Packers. Fortunately, there may be some opportunities for the edge defenders to wreak havoc.
Pass protection grade of offensive linemen in True Pass Sets only pic.twitter.com/mM6j3ieyUH— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) January 9, 2024
The Cowboys passing offense is primarily run through Ceedee Lamb. His 94 total EPA this season is over 2.5 times as much as their WR2, Brandin Cooks. They’ll move Lamb all over the formation, but he does a lot of his work in the slot. Dak Prescott prefers to get in the gun, spread the offense out in open formations, identify mismatches, and attack them. This style of offense should be quite familiar to Packers fans, as that is what Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers did for years in Green Bay. Unfortunately, this is also something Green Bay routinely struggles with.
The Cowboys running game is nothing to write home about, but unfortunately for Green Bay, Dallas prefers to throw the ball more than just about anyone in the league, as they had the fourth highest pass-rate-over-expected this past season.
Offensive pass rate over expected on early downs— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) January 9, 2024
It was fun, Arthur Smith pic.twitter.com/Nvou6g9Fx2
It’s difficult to expect the Packers defense to slow down the Cowboys offense on a drive-to-drive basis, so keeping Dallas to a low point total will probably rely on turnovers, sacks, or red zone variance. The Packers offense will have to keep up, and they’ll be facing a good, but kind of weird defense.
Overall, Dallas’ defense is very good. For the season, they ranked fourth in EPA allowed per play, but, and this is the weird part, just 22nd in success rate allowed. The Dallas defense thrives on splash plays. The Cowboys defense ranked fourth in drives that ended in turnovers. Micah Parsons is an absolute menace. Parsons ranked second in PFF’s pass rush win rate beyond only Myles Garrett. He racked up more pressures than anyone in the NFL with 103. Demarcus Lawrence has slowed down a bit as he ages, meaning despite Parsons prolific production, the Cowboys were only about league average in pressure rate. Zach Tom’s health will be a big deal for the Packers this week, as having two good pass blocking tackles will be vital to the success of the Packers offense.
In the secondary, there’s no Trevon Diggs due to injury, but Stephon Gilmore and DaRon Bland have been a solid duo, with both having above average CPOE allowed when targeted. Dallas plays a ton of single high coverage, playing cover-1 on over half their snaps and cover-3 on an additional 10%. No one in the league plays more cover-1 than Dallas does, so it will be of the utmost importance for Green Bay’s young receiving corps to be able to get quick separation against the Cowboys secondary before Micah Parsons can get home.
A lot of Jordan Love’s production this season came over the middle of the field, and that has also been where Dallas’ defense has been the weakest on a per-attempt basis. Expect Green Bay to try to get bodies into this area of the field with regularity, which really just means running their offense as normal.
It’s not difficult to see why Dallas are pretty heavy favorites in this matchup on DraftKings. While both offenses have been among the best in the league, the Dallas defense also presents a challenge in a way Green Bay just has not been able to. No seven seed has ever upset a two seed since the seventh seed was added. Green Bay probably has a good of a shot as anyone has. An elite offense can do a lot for you. Green Bay probably just needs a little turnover luck to pull off a major upset if the offense can continue piling up the production.