Matthews: Cowboys’ dynamic offense ‘presents a challenge’ to Packers defense
GREEN BAY, Wis. — Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers has studied the Dallas Cowboys’ offense thoroughly to get ready for Sunday’s NFC divisional-round matchup. He’s seen how DeMarco Murray came to be the league’s top rusher. He watched Dez Bryant catch an NFL-best 16 touchdowns. He saw the ways in which Tony Romo was able to be the only quarterback with a better passer rating than Aaron Rodgers.
It was quickly evident just how big of a challenge is awaiting Green Bay’s defense.
"They’ve done a nice job putting this offense together," Capers said. "You can’t really zero in on one area. You do that too much and then they hurt you in another area."
There’s really not a weakness to the Cowboys’ offense. They have great players at nearly every offensive position.
"Well, how can we beat them with that right there?" linebacker Clay Matthews said with a sarcastic smile. "We’ll be all right. You’ve got to pick and choose who to take away. Obviously Dez is going to be a No. 1 concern out there. You look at his production throughout the year. DeMarco Murray leading the league in rushing, as well as Romo arguably having his best year.
"It presents a challenge, but I think we’re all up for it. We’re ready for it to showcase this defense and what we’re about."
Murray and Bryant are first-team All-Pro selections, while Romo made the second-team. As if that’s not enough to keep Capers busy with game-planning, there’s also an offensive line that Capers described as "certainly one of the top two or three in the league."
That offensive line features a first-team All-Pro at left tackle (Tyron Smith) and at right guard (rookie Zack Martin). There’s a second-teamer on the line, too, with Travis Frederick at center. All three of them were first-round picks in the past four years, beginning with Smith at No. 9 overall in 2011 and in the most recent draft with Martin at No. 16.
"They’ve made a big investment in their offensive line over the last few years, and I think it’s paying dividends for them," Capers said. "They’re very athletic in the offensive line."
Many NFL observers view Green Bay as having the league’s best offense. By leading the NFL in scoring in the regular season, the Packers have certainly helped make that case for themselves. But is there a more well-rounded, star-studded offense than Dallas? Adding in the veteran savvy of tight end Jason Witten, it’s easy to make an argument that the Cowboys had the best quarterback-running back-wide receiver-tight end foursome in the league this season. And those players have time to work because of the blocking up front.
"The statistics they’ve put up, there’s a reason why," Capers said. "I think they’ve got a very good combination of experience and youth on the offense. A guy like Romo who’s been around for 12 years or so, and he’s got Witten that he’s been working with. They’ve had a special chemistry for a long time. I think Dez Bryant has come into his own. Anytime you’ve got 16 touchdown catches and the kind of production he’s had, obviously he’s a one-on-one issue you have to deal with.
"I think everything starts with DeMarco Murray, their ability to run the ball."
Murray was certainly given the opportunities to have a breakout season in 2014. His 392 rushing attempts were 80 more than the running back with the second-most carries. But Murray earned those chances and made the most of them, rushing for 484 yards more than the second-place runner.
"He’s going to make his plays," Matthews said of Murray. "The bottom line is we can’t let him get going, especially on the edge against those (defensive backs). We need to stop him.
"It’s about getting all hats to the ball because he’s a special talent and will make his plays."
When it comes to Bryant, cornerback Casey Hayward compared him to Atlanta’s Julio Jones. Considering Jones had 259 receiving yards against Green Bay one month ago, that could present a problem for the Packers.
"When he catches the ball, he fronts you up, he can get a stiff-arm in," Hayward said of Bryant. "Like with Julio, he reminds me of him because he breaks a lot of tackles and he just goes when he catches it.
"He’s a great player. We just have to limit him."
Hayward added that Capers has "a different game plan, different schemes" for Bryant than was in place against Jones.
Hayward described Bryant as a "big, physical guy" who "can get to the ball at its highest point."
"Those are one of the hardest things to deal with," Hayward continued, "especially when you’re going against smaller guys like us. But we’re more athletic than most guys on the field, as well. We’ll be able to match."
Bryant had six touchdown catches in the final three regular-season games. However, he was held to just three catches for 48 yards and no touchdowns in the Cowboys’ wild-card round win over Detroit.
"I don’t think it’s about stopping him," Hayward said. "It’s about limiting him."
There’s not been an easy way for defenses to attack Romo, either. According to data at ProFootballFocus, Romo actually had a better passer rating when blitzed than when he wasn’t blitzed.
"His decision-making has been very good," Capers said. "He’s not taken the chances, I don’t think. Their approach, their style has enabled him to do that because any quarterback would like to be in the favorable down-and-distance situations. It doesn’t put the pressure on you to where you feel like you have to make a play every down. I think when you take that approach you have less errors. His quarterback rating certainly bears that out."
Green Bay’s turnaround defensively since its midseason bye has been drastic. The Packers’ run defense ranked last in the NFL for five out of six weeks between late September and early November, and their overall defense was as low as 26th on multiple occasions. They finished the regular season 15th overall (up 11 spots) and 23rd against the run (up nine spots).
If there’s one offense for Green Bay to face that could prove whether its defense is for real, it’s Dallas’.
"To do the things we want to do, to reach our goals, you’re going to have to play against the best — this is definitely one of the top offenses," Capers said. "It’s going to be a tremendous test for us. We have a healthy respect for what they do, and I think our guys are looking forward to the challenge because they know we’re going to be challenged.
"They’re going to make their plays, and we have to respond in a positive nature. When they make good plays, we have to come back and find a way to get it turned around and make our plays."
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