Game of the Week: Cowboys at Packers
Breaking down Sunday night's Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers game (8:15 p.m., NBC) ...
Four Things You Should Care About
1. Quote of the week: "I think Aaron Rodgers did a better job than Brett Favre because we didn't know anything about him." That's Cowboys linebacker Bradie James explaining Rodgers' stellar second half against the Cowboys last year. On one hand, is James really implying that I, inexperienced gunslinger that I am, could step in and throw for 200 yards against the Cowboys as long as they hadn't scouted me properly yet? Probably not. On the other hand, he has a point. (Or at least he hopes he does.) James was stunned by Rodgers' mobility and accuracy last year. This time, Dallas will be the first team to have more than two plays worth of tape on Rodgers versus its own personnel. Cue Roger Daltrey and The Who.
Dallas also has two full game tapes from this season to study, against Minnesota and Detroit. Which, of course, is something we'll be saying every single game this year: "The such-and-suches have an advantage because they have more game film on Rodgers than any past opponent to work from."
Here's what the Cowboys may have learned from Weeks 1 and 2: Rodgers has more poise and confidence than anyone could have expected. He's been cool in the pocket, almost defiant. Watch the first-quarter score against Minnesota in the face of a mad rush. When Rodgers has been down (i.e. a few lousy series against Detroit and a squandered lead), he's bounced back (a subsequent 60-yard score to Greg Jennings to pull away). He's proven mobile, which was a serious concern entering the season. Only two quarterbacks have been sacked less among starters. He's been pin-point accurate, having attempted 60 passes without an interception. And so far, he's handled everything that's been thrown at him, including Minnesota's fierce front four and Detroit's work-in-progress Tampa-2.
That last point may make the difference on Sunday. Dallas uses a 3-4 defense, which Rodgers hasn't faced as a starter. He'll have more mobile and relentless blitzers coming his way. He'll quickly learn the difference between Minnesota's Pat or Kevin Williams and Dallas' DeMarcus Ware.
2. This could be the game where Green Bay fans finally buy into Rodgers wholeheartedly. If Rodgers wins, he'll be 3-0, which Brett Favre accomplished only twice in the last decade, four times in his career. He will have slain the top two NFC favorites coming into the season, and will have overcome a team that seemed unbeatable to Favre's Packers last year. Over two years, Rodgers would have 1.5 wins against Dallas. Favre, meanwhile, would have contributed half a loss.
Statistically, Rodgers has outperformed Favre in '08. Dominated, really, if you've watched all four of their combined games. I'll let the stats speak: In two games, Rodgers has four scores, zero interceptions, a 117.8 passer rating and he's only been sacked once. Compare that against Favre's three, one, 104.1 and five. Close enough, I guess, but is there honestly a Packers fan out there who would switch back?
Rodgers, in what amounts to his rookie year, looks like vintage mid-90s Favre, minus the mistakes. He reads the field quickly and exhaustively, and he's already shown a Favrian knack for creativity, as exhibited by the flick-of-the-wrist touchdown to Korey Hall in Week 1. Where do you think he learned that one?
Dallas could be a hump or a turning point. If Green Bay wins, Rodgers is staring at winnable games against Tampa, Atlanta and Seattle. If they lose, then wins over lowly Detroit and sputtering Minnesota suddenly look less impressive.
3. For Green bay to win they must stop Jason Witten on defense. So far, Terrell Owens has been the Quick Strike Guy and Marion Barber has been the Grind it Out Guy. But Witten has been Mr. Move the Chains. Against Cleveland, all six of his catches (96 yards) went for first downs. Against Philly, three of seven, but he averaged 15.7 yards for a total of 110. That's nine first downs altogether, which leads tight ends and would rank fifth among all receivers.
Mostly, he's doing the same thing over and over, slipping right up the middle in the 10- to 15-yard range for easy catches against outmatched linebackers.
One way to slow Witten is with a strong pass rush, and that starts with able ends Aaron Kampman and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. If Witten has to stay back in protection, he can't get down field. If he does release, then the task of covering Witten will fall largely on A.J. Hawk and Brady Poppinga. When Witten crosses into safety territory, he'll get what appears to be a mismatch against second-year safety Aaron Rouse. He's filling in for Atari Bigby, who has a bad hammy and is likely to sit, which leads us to point No. 4 ...
4. Injuries will play a big role again in this meeting. In 2007, the Packers were missing cornerback Charles Woodson, tackle Johnny Jolly, Gbaja-Biamila and Favre. The effects were obvious, from the lack of a pass rush to the overwhelmed secondary. Dallas went aerial and led 27-10 mid-second quarter.
This year, only Bigby is missing. But Woodson is nursing a toe that he broke in Week 1; though he's scheduled to play, that injury increases the likelihood that Al Harris will take on Owens in man coverage. Harris was responsible for Owens during the majority of last year's game, and the receiver went wild: seven catches, 156 yards and a score.
On the other sideline, Dallas is missing Roy Williams, who fractured his right arm against Philadelphia, but Dallas has the luxury of depth. They'll use a little more of Adam Jones as well as reserve Patrick Watkins on running downs. If anyone is playing with a handicap this week, it's Green Bay.
Inside The Scouting Report
Every week, we'll ask one NFL assistant with relevant game experience to provide an anonymous scouting report on our Game of the Week. Here's what one assistant from a 2007 Cowboys opponent had to say about game-planning Tony Romo, T.O. and the explosive Cowboys offense:
"Tony is smart. He can address coverage very well with his hard count and his dummy counts. He can get a secondary to show him what they're playing before the ball is snapped. Not a lot of quarterbacks can do that. And he's a guy that can create with his feet. I've never really thought of Romo as being a great take-off-and-gain-yards guy, but he's a guy that can buy time with his feet to throw the ball down the field. He doesn't run to gain yards like Michael Vick would; he creates to throw the ball down the field. That's scary. I think he does an unbelievable job of that."
"And T.O. is a beast. Him and Romo I think have great chemistry. Romo knows where T.O.'s going to be and T.O. knows how to go places where Romo can get him the ball. Forget the fact that T.O. is a freak physically-the way he can run, how big he is, how physical he plays, what he can do when he has the ball in his hands. T.O. might have an "out" called, he sees Tony in trouble so he turns that "out" into a "go" ball. Now all bets are off because you don't know what the hell the route is as a defensive back. You don't know where the ball is going."
"I think the number one thing you got to do [to defend that] is you start changing coverages and doubling T.O. Last year we didn't roll to T.O. We didn't have a bracket deal to T.O. We didn't do anything different than we normally did. We didn't do any doubling or bracketing, and the reason I was nervous about doing this was they have other weapons-the Crayton kid-not to mention their running game."
As it often does with this Green Bay defense, this game comes down to Al Harris vs. a star receiver, in this case Terrell Owens. T.O. has burning speed, Harris doesn't. Harris relies on aggression at the line of scrimmage to rattle receivers, but T.O. has the rare body mass to combat that. I think this turns into a shootout, which will keep Ryan Grant's and Barber's contributions to a minimum. I think Dallas will win 45-30 with at least two of those scores touching T.O.'s hands.