GREEN BAY, Wis. — The toughest test yet of the season looms on Sunday for the Green Bay Packers' league-best run defense.
No team has moved the ball better on the ground than the Dallas Cowboys so far this season.
Mike Daniels and the Packers' defensive front against a Cowboys offensive line that paves openings for rookie tailback Ezekiel Elliott.
Strength against strength. The Packers hold opponents to 42.8 yards rushing per game. The Cowboys rush for 155.2 yards per game.
“It's the starting point each and every week for both football teams,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “So it'll be an excellent matchup.”
Elliott is only the third rookie in NFL history, after Eric Dickerson and Mike Anderson, to run for at least 130 yards in three straight games. Mobile quarterback Dak Prescott has three rushing touchdowns.
This is a good week for the Packers' defensive front to be reinforced.
Lineman Mike Pennel is eligible to rejoin the active roster this weekend after being suspended the first four games by the NFL for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Pennel was a key backup last season, especially effective against the run.
His impending return would mean that Green Bay would have its full complement of linemen again. Tackle Letroy Guion rejoined the starting lineup last week alongside Daniels after missing a game with a knee injury.
Kenny Clark, the team's first-round draft pick, has also played well for a rookie. Hybrid linebacker-lineman Datone Jones has helped fill the void up front.
Now Jones may be able to focus more on pass-rushing duties. Either way, Green Bay's deep group of outside linebackers, led by Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, has extended the wall against the run to the edges.
“We're all on the same page. We're clicking,” Perry said after practice Wednesday. “This is our opportunity to be the best . . . to be aggressive and to compete on all downs.”
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett has taken notice. The Packers, he said, play well against the run regardless of whether Green Bay is in its base 3-4 defense, or if a fifth defensive back is on the field in what would normally be passing situations.
Garrett also likes how his offense has improved running the ball no matter the defense.
“There are certainly a lot of areas where we have to get better,” Garrett said, “but we're doing a good job coming off the ball, getting into blocks and finding places for runners to run. The runners are running well.”
Ellliott, a 6-foot, 225-pound rookie, will certainly be tough to bring down. But keep in mind that the Packers have already held Vikings running back Adrian Peterson to 19 yards on 12 carries in Week 2 before Peterson got hurt.
But facing a mobile quarterback such as Prescott presents the Packers with a new challenge this season. McCarthy said handling the Cowboys' play-action game will be important.
“Obviously they're stacked in their numbers in the run game. So maybe we'll have to throw it a little bit more,” Prescott said in a conference call. “But that's a great defense that they've got over there. We're excited for the challenge.”
“You catch the ball, you throw it a little more accurately and, you know, don't throw it away as much. Maybe I should start taking some more sacks. No, you know what, I've got to be more accurate and I will. We've got to make the most of the opportunities on 50-50 balls and the balls we should catch and complete.” — QB Aaron Rodgers, when asked about his uncharacteristically-low 56.1 percent completion rate through four games, which is 31st in the NFL.
WR Randall Cobb was limited in practice with a neck injury after taking a hard hit late in last week's 23-16 win over the Giants. . . . RB Eddie Lacy (left ankle) and CB Damarious Randall (groin) were also limited. . . . Backup RB James Starks was held out with a knee injury. The Packers have no running backs on the active roster after Lacy and Starks, though they have used Cobb and fellow receiver Ty Montgomery in the backfield at times.