Dallas Cowboys: Clay Matthews

Breaking down Tony Romo's first pick

December, 16, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- When Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett addresses the media Monday, the playcalling in the 37-36 loss to the Green Bay Packers will be a big focus, just as it was after the game.

Much of the focus will be on Sam Shields' interception of Tony Romo that led to Green Bay's winning score. Facing second and 6 from the Dallas 35, Romo did not carry out the running play because he felt the Packers overloaded the right side of the Cowboys’ formation and threw a "smoke" to Miles Austin.

Let’s look at that play.

The Cowboys were in 12 personnel with two tight ends and DeMarco Murray. They are in the same formation as they were in when they ran their first play of the game. That play netted them 11 yards on a Murray carry.

But there were some differences in how this play was run.

On the first play, Gavin Escobar, who is in a bunch formation with Jason Witten and Austin, motions to the weak side. He blocks outside linebacker Clay Matthews with the run going to the strong side. Escobar just has to get in the way of Matthews, not really block him with any kind of power.

Witten does a great job with his block on Nick Perry. Doug Free and Mackenzy Bernadeau chew up the line and linebackers, which gives Murray a nice gain. The safeties were not in the screen shot on the TV copy and the Packers had seven in the box. Cornerback Tramon Williams is lined up eight yards off of Austin.

Now to the fourth-quarter play. Same formation, but the receivers are different. Terrance Williams is in the bunch with Witten and Escobar and Austin is outside with Dez Bryant off the field.

Clearly this is the same play as the first snap.

Listening to the television copy of the game, you can hear Romo put his hand up and say, "Stay."

Since Escobar did not go in motion on the play, as he did on the first snap, we can surmise Romo is talking to him. We know Bill Callahan called a running play here. And on the first play of the game you can hear Romo end that play call with the word "smoke," as they break the huddle, so we know that option was there, too.

Romo has decided to throw to Austin because the Packers' deepest defenders are only six yards off the line of scrimmage. Safety Morgan Burnett has flipped spots with cornerback and is lined up outside Williams but close to the box, only three yards off the ball.

Without motioning Escobar, Matthews is left unblocked. There is no play-fake to Murray for Matthews to read. At the snap he breaks to Romo and somehow misses the sure sack. Escobar attempts to move from the strong side to pick up Matthews but it would be impossible for him to block him.

Austin ran a great route and turned Shields around off the jam. There is space for a big play. But Romo's momentum after getting away from Matthews is taking him to his left and as a result his pass to Austin is behind the receiver and gives the trailing Shields the chance for the interception.

Were the Packers prepared for the run? Sure. Should the Cowboys have run it anyway? Absolutely.

Double Coverage: Packers-Cowboys

December, 12, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- The Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys are two of the most storied franchises in NFL history, but with three games to play in the 2013 season both are on the outside of the playoff chase and in need of a win.

The Packers have fallen on hard times without Aaron Rodgers but won last week against the Atlanta Falcons. The Cowboys are coming off a humiliating loss to the Chicago Bears and have a short week to get ready.

ESPN.com Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Cowboys reporter Todd Archer debate the matchup in this week's Double Coverage.

Archer: I'll skip the "What's Aaron Rodgers status?" and ask about Ted Thompson's approach to the backup quarterback. The Cowboys pay Kyle Orton a lot of money to hopefully never throw a pass. Is there any regret form the Packers that they did not have a better backup quarterback situation behind Rodgers, considering their struggles without him?

[Editor's note: Rodgers was officially ruled out for Sunday's game on Friday.]

Demovsky: Thompson admitted at the end of training camp that he probably should have signed Vince Young much earlier than he did, although after watching Young for about a month, I'm not sure he would have been any better had the Packers signed back in the spring. Where they probably erred was in not drafting a quarterback. They overestimated what they had in Graham Harrell and B.J. Coleman, and neither one developed enough. When Ron Wolf was the GM, he made it a regular practice to draft a quarterback in the middle-to -late rounds. Not all of them worked out, but guys like Ty Detmer, Mark Brunell, Matt Hasselbeck and Aaron Brooks all came up through the Packers' system.

Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Tony Romo is "playing probably as good as he has in his career." Do you agree with that assessment?

Archer: I'd agree with that, sure. It's hard to argue against his numbers. He has 3,244 yards passing with 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He's taking care of the ball. He had one really careless throw and it cost the Cowboys big-time in their loss to the Denver Broncos. Romo gets most of the blame for the December/January woes this team has had, but in his last 16 games he has 34 touchdowns and seven picks. It's hard to play better than that. But you know what? He has to. This defense is so bad that Romo has to be nearly perfect. There can be no poor drives. If they don't get points they at least need to chew up time because there's not an offense the Cowboys can slow down right now.

When the Packers won Super Bowl XLV at AT&T Stadium they were able to overcome so many injuries, especially on defense as we talked about. The difference this year is Rodgers missing time, but is there anything more to it than that?

Demovsky: They did end up with 15 players in injured reserve in their Super Bowl season, and then during that game itself they lost Charles Woodson to a broken collarbone. But you know what? This defense played fine early this season and even during the stretch Clay Matthews missed because of his broken thumb. Capers said last week that losing Rodgers had nothing to do with the Packers' defensive slide, but I'm not buying it. The Packers' defense got four turnovers in the Thanksgiving game at Detroit and still got walloped 40-10 because the offense couldn't do a darn thing with them. To be sure, there are issues on defense. Their failure to address needs at safety has hurt them up the middle, where their inside linebackers also haven't played well enough.

It sounds like Monte Kiffin is already taking heat, but how much of it is personnel? When I saw Packers castoff Jarius Wynn playing Monday night against the Bears, to me that was a red flag that there are talent issues, perhaps some of them caused by injuries.

Archer: There are talent issues and there are depth issues. Blame the owner and GM who constructed this team. Blame the coaches -- Kiffin and Rod Marinelli -- for saying the line was a position of strength. The Cowboys thought they had pieces to fit Kiffin's scheme at the start of the year. DeMarcus Ware has not been DeMarcus Ware in part because of injuries, but he acknowledged he has to play better. Bruce Carter was supposed to be the ideal weak-side linebacker and he just has not made any plays. The corners are more man corners and Kiffin has tried to play more man but all of them -- Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick -- have had issues. Sean Lee has been hurt and could miss Sunday's game with a neck injury. He's been good but the defense has been lit up with him on the field, too. It's just a mess. Until Jerry Jones realizes he needs better players, not necessarily better schemes, it will be a mess.

Let's stick with the defensive coordinators. From the outside looking in, it appears Capers is catching a lot of grief too. Are the Packers committed to the 3-4 regardless or could they pull a Dallas and move to a 4-3 in the future?

Demovsky: When the cornerstone of the defense is Matthews, an outside linebacker, I would think they'd have to stick with the 3-4 even if they part ways with Capers, which I'm not sure will happen anyway. Mike McCarthy has continually praised Capers and the defensive staff. It's probably more about personnel. They need a few more playmakers to help out Matthews. They haven't gotten enough production from their defensive front. I'd look for an overhaul in personnel more than a coaching change.

Knowing the temperature in the Cowboys locker room like you do, how do you think they will react to getting steamrolled Monday night? Is this a group that will fight? Or will they pack it in?

Archer: This is where I have to give Jason Garrett credit. This team has fought. Maybe they didn't fight all that much in the losses to New Orleans and Chicago, but they have not packed it in. You saw the last time the Cowboys packed it in in 2010 at Lambeau Field when Wade Phillips was the coach. The Cowboys lost 45-7 and were completely disinterested. Phillips was fired the next day and Garrett took over. There is some gumption to this team. They do work hard. They do the right things. I'll say it again: Most of it is a talent issue. I'd expect the Cowboys to come out with the effort Sunday because they're still very much in the playoff chase. But do they believe they can really make a run? I don't know about that.

IRVING, Texas – Until the Cowboys win in December, the closing month will always be the toughest stretch of games.

Three of the Cowboys’ December opponents had winning records in 2012 (Chicago, Green Bay, Washington) and two made the playoffs (Packers, Redskins). The Bears finished 10-6 in 2012 and lost out on a wild-card spot due to tiebreakers.

Winning at Chicago in December is a difficult challenge, but the Bears have changed coaches and have parted ways with future Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher. The Cowboys will also look to avenge a 34-18 drubbing last season at Cowboys Stadium in which Tony Romo was intercepted five times.

The first time Green Bay played in Cowboys Stadium, it won Super Bowl XLV. Aaron Rodgers is at the top of the quarterback charts in the NFL and Clay Matthews signed an extension this week. The last time the Cowboys played the Packers happened to be Wade Phillips last game as coach, a 45-7 thrashing at Lambeau Field on Nov. 7, 2010.

PODCAST
Ian Fitzsimmons and Richard Durrett examine the recently-released NFL schedule and agree that the Cowboys don't have any reason to complain.

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Every Cowboys fan should remember what happened when their team visited Washington to close the 2012 season. Romo was intercepted three times and the Cowboys limped home with a 28-18 loss to finish 8-8 for the second straight year. Any trip to FedEx Field has been a grind for the Cowboys. Robert Griffin III makes it that much harder.

Closing the year at home against Philadelphia will be nice after the Cowboys failed to win de facto NFC East championship games at MetLife Stadium to the Giants and FedEx Field to the Redskins in 2011 and ’12. In fact, the last time the Cowboys made the playoffs was in 2009 when they ended the year by beating the Eagles and beat them again a week later in the wild-card round.

What could help the Cowboys entering December is a late bye (Nov. 17) and the 10-day break after the Thanksgiving Day game. That time off could benefit the team’s health.

Anthony Spencer named to Pro Bowl

January, 18, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- Turns out the Dallas Cowboys will have an outside linebacker at the Pro Bowl after all.

Anthony Spencer was named as an injury replacement for Green Bay's Clay Matthews on Friday. Dallas' DeMarcus Ware was voted to the Pro Bowl for the seventh straight year, but he had recent shoulder surgery and was replaced by Minnesota's Chad Greenway.

Spencer's first trip to the Pro Bowl comes on the heels of his first double-digit sack season. In 14 games, Spencer led the Cowboys with 106 tackles and a career-high 11 sacks.

Read the whole story here.

DeMarcus Ware, Jason Witten named to Pro Bowl

December, 26, 2012
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IRVING, Texas -- For the second straight year the Cowboys had only two players selected to the Pro Bowl, their fewest in back-to-back years since 2001-02.

PODCAST
ESPN Dallas' Todd Archer joins Galloway & Company to talk about the Cowboys' upcoming game against the Redskins.

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Outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware has been selected for the seventh straight year, and after a one-year hiatus tight end Jason Witten was picked for the eighth time.

Ware was selected as a starter with San Francisco’s Aldon Smith, and Witten was voted as a backup to Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez.

How many Cowboys actually play in the Jan. 27, 2013, game in Honolulu is up for debate because Ware could need surgery on his right shoulder after the season and a couple of players could be added as injury replacements.

The Cowboys do not comment on what players are named as possible alternates.

Last year, Ware and nose tackle Jay Ratliff were named to the Pro Bowl.

Ware leads the Cowboys with 11.5 sacks and is closing on the team’s unofficial sack record of 114 held by Harvey Martin. The franchise’s official all-time sack leader is tied with Randy White with 111 sacks on the unofficial list.

“What an honor and privilege it is to be voted to the Pro Bowl by the fans, coaches and players around the league,” Ware said in a statement released by the team. “I know how difficult it is to make it to the game, and I appreciate the support from everyone. I look forward to not only representing the NFC, but also the entire Dallas Cowboys organization.”

Witten set an NFL record for catches by a tight end in a season with 103 and needs 17 yards for his fourth 1,000-yard season. He needs 12 catches Sunday at Washington to set the franchise’s season record for catches, currently held by Michael Irvin, who had 111 catches in 1995. Witten became the Cowboys’ all-time leading pass catcher Nov. 4 in Atlanta.

The only players in team history with more Pro Bowl selections for the Cowboys are Bob Lilly (11), Larry Allen (10), Mel Renfro (10) and White (nine). Emmitt Smith was also picked to play in eight.

“It is always an honor to get voted, especially when a portion of the vote comes from your peers around the league,” Witten said. “Ihave a lot of respect for this league and the players that make up this league. I know how many great players there are around the NFL, and to be selected is very humbling.”

Dez Bryant missed out on making his first Pro Bowl appearance despite a breakout season. Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, Chicago’s Brandon Marshall, Victor Cruz of the New York Giants and Atlanta’s Julio Jones were named as the four receivers.

Bryant has 88 catches for 1,311 yards and 12 touchdowns on the season and has caught at least one TD pass in his last seven games. He has more catches and yards than Cruz and Jones and more touchdowns than Johnson and Marshall.

Even if he is added to the roster it is unlikely that Bryant would play in the all-star game because he needs surgery on his left index finger when the season ends.

Outside linebacker Anthony Spencer also missed out on a bid, despite a career-high 10 sacks and a team-leading 99 tackles. Ware was joined at the outside linebacker position by Smith and Green Bay’s Clay Matthews.

Pro Bowl voters not looking at Cowboys

November, 29, 2012
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IRVING, Texas – The Cowboys are looking at possibly having their fewest number of Pro Bowl representatives since 2002.

The only two players in the top five in the current fan voting are DeMarcus Ware, who is second among outside linebackers, and Jason Witten, who is fourth among tight ends.

The only Cowboy selected to the Pro Bowl in 2002 was defensive lineman La’Roi Glover on a team that finished 5-11. The Cowboys had two players picked for the game last season, in Ware and nose tackle Jay Ratliff.

Witten is second in the NFL in catches with 82 and is on pace to set a league record for catches in a season by a tight end. He is on pace for more than 1,000 yards but has scored only one touchdown. He trails Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez, New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham and San Francisco’s Vernon Davis.

Ware, who has played in the last six Pro Bowls, is fourth in the NFL in sacks with 10 and second in the conference. He trails Green Bay’s Clay Matthews in the fan vote.

What other Cowboy could warrant consideration? Maybe Anthony Spencer. Maybe Dez Bryant. Maybe Dan Bailey.

Scout's Eye: Cowboys-Eagles preview

December, 23, 2011
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Scout's Eye
When Jason Garrett's Cowboys met at Valley Ranch this week, all they had to do to be reminded of what these Philadelphia Eagles did to them in Week 8 is sit down in their meeting rooms and study the tape of the total domination to understand what they will be up against this weekend.

The Cowboys have faced some quality opponents, but when you study the Eagles you see nothing like the other teams in the league with what you have to deal with from an offensive standpoint. There were days when I was in Green Bay and playing the '90s Cowboys when you went into a game against them trying to figure out how you were going to stop Emmitt Smith from running the ball or Jay Novacek on third downs or Michael Irvin on the slant. Just when you thought that you had one of those areas taken care of, the other players would find a way to take the game from you. This Eagles offense puts a lot of those same thoughts in my mind that I experienced against those Cowboys teams.

In the last meeting between these two teams, Rob Ryan and his staff made the decision to not allow these Eagles wide receivers to make any vertical plays down the field. Safeties Abram Elam and Gerald Sensabaugh, as Ryan put it, played "503 yards deep" from the line of scrimmage. The problem with this decision for Ryan was with his safeties so deep, he opened up the middle of the field.

Then to compound the problem, he lost Sean Lee in the game -- the only linebacker that was athletic enough to make a play in the middle of the field. This was a horrible situation for Ryan because it meant that he had to rely on Keith Brooking and Bradie James, who were exposed in coverage and in the running game. With the deep safeties, it allowed tight end Brent Celek and wide receivers Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson to work crossing routes inside.

When I have studied Vick his last four games, the one area that he likes to attack is the middle of the field. Matter of fact, his best and worst throws come when he is working the middle of the field. Vick just looks more comfortable throwing to targets right in front of him, but like I mentioned he will make mistakes trying to fit ball down the middle against safeties.

McCoy looms as multi-dimensional threat


The deep safeties also hurt Ryan in the running game dealing with LeSean McCoy.

There are three areas that McCoy can hurt your defense.

[+] EnlargeLeSean McCoy
AP Photo/Matt SlocumExpect LeSean McCoy to give Sean Lee and the Cowboys defense the most fits.
The first one is on the stretch play when you have the offensive line with full flow running with defenders and he takes the ball all the way to the edge and around the corner. The Cowboys got gashed in the last meeting by the down blocking by tackles Jason Peters and Todd Herremans, who were able to set the edge allowing the ball to get outside. Watch how Marcus Spears, Jason Hatcher and Kenyon Coleman play in this contest, because if the Eagles are running the ball well on the edges, it's probably because the defensive ends are not doing their jobs getting off blocks.

The second way that McCoy hurts you is with the sprint draw. Teams have various ways they run the draw, but the Eagles take full advantage of the ball-handling skill of Vick. Teams try so hard to get up the field and attack the Eagles before they get going that it leaves lanes in the defense. As the defense is coming up the field, Vick does an outstanding job of tucking the ball into McCoy and letting him use his vision and quickness to get the ball up the field past the oncoming defenders.

The final way that McCoy can hurt you is as a pass catcher, whether that is in the flat or more impressively in the screen game. The Eagles love to run screens and they will do them from anywhere on the field. The Eagles are the most dangerous when they get into the red zone and once again try to take advantage of defenders getting up the field. The Eagles will throw wide receiver screens to Jackson, they will use Celek in a delay screen where he blocks for two or three counts, then works his way to the outside in the open field, but the player that gives defenses the most trouble is McCoy. He catches the ball so well on the move and when he gets one-on-one, he can break anyone down. The problem for Ryan is that he doesn't really know when offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg is going to use these screens, but he knows they will.

The Eagles' struggles this season have been with their offensive line. Against the Cowboys in the last meeting, I felt like that they were better than the Dallas front seven. There were too many plays where the Cowboys didn't do a good enough job of getting off blocks allowing the Eagles to control the game upfront.

The best offensive lineman for the Eagles is Peters at left tackle. In the games I was able to study, Peters more than has held his own, whereas earlier in the season, he didn't appear to move all that well. I thought he moved way too slow with his feet, but that has changed.

Teams have taken advantage of the Eagles inside with guards Evan Mathis and Danny Watkins. Rookie center Jason Kelce will get overpowered at the point of attack. The mobility of Vick and the quickness of McCoy really assist this offensive line in overcoming a great deal of their shortcomings.

Smith handles Babin once more


The last time that these two clubs met, there was a great deal of pressure on Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo because of the direction that the defense was going. Losses were mounting and the players that were brought in had yet to truly play as a collective unit.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
AP Photo/Matt SlocumJason Babin will play wide on the outside shoulders of the tackles seeking to add to his league-leading sack total.
The buzzword that you will hear in all the pregame shows will be how the Eagles play this defensive alignment of a "Wide 9," which is simply, defensive ends Trent Cole and Jason Babin play wide on the outside shoulder of the tackles Doug Free and Tyron Smith. At times they will be a full man removed from the tackle. When you play this type of scheme, you are asking your ends to get up the field as quickly as possible to disrupt the running game but more importantly cause problems in the passing game. Pass rush is where the Eagles cause the most problems.

Usually your best pass rusher will rush from the offensive left hand side, but the Eagles' best rusher comes from the offensive right. The Green Bay Packers are the same way with Clay Matthews rushing from the offensive right.

Babin, who has a league-leading 18 sacks, is as explosive as any rusher Smith will face all season. As a matter of fact, Babin was the rusher who gave Smith the most trouble with his inside move. Talking to Smith, he now understands what he is up against and I think he is better for it.

Babin is unique with this move because he is able to do it at the depth and level of the quarterback's drop. He has a real feel for how to push up the field and get all of the weight of the tackle on his outside foot then quickly duck underneath. Smith really struggled when Babin used this technique on him.

At the other end is Trent Cole against Free. There should be serious cause for concern here because of the struggles that Free has had with technique this season. Cole is a better run player than Babin.

The Eagles are at their best in run defense when the ball goes wide and they are able to handle the play. It is when teams have run the ball at them that they have had their struggles. I thought the Seahawks did a real nice job with this in the regard that they physically came off the ball, getting hats on hats and making the Eagles fight blocks then have to deal with Marshawn Lynch.

The Eagles' weakness on defense is at linebacker. In studying Akeem Jordan, Jamar Chaney, Brian Rolle and Casey Matthews, I didn't feel like they did a good enough job of taking on blocks. With the injury to Felix Jones, I would not be one bit surprised to see Jason Garrett try to attack this Eagles defense with fullback Tony Fiammetta, Jones and Sammy Morris going straight ahead.

Teams have had also had success running the ball with misdirection plays. By that, I mean starting flow one way and getting the defense to react then bringing the ball backside with an H-blocker or fullback. If Jones was healthy, this is something you might see more of.

In the secondary, Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are the corners with Joselio Hanson as the nickel. Asomugha will play the slot. The last time that these two teams met, he covered Jason Witten when he was in line and in the slot.

Something else to watch for is that Castillo has gone back to some of the old exotic blitz schemes that former defensive coordinator Jim Johnson used. In the Jets and Dolphins games, Castillo used two down linemen and had Cole, Babin and Matthews standing up in the middle of the defense. The Cowboys have had their troubles with blitz pickups when teams put pressure in the middle of the pocket with twist stunts.

Two things must happen this week: the Cowboys receivers must find a way to win on the outside and the offensive line must be able to pick up blitzes in the middle of Eagles defense. If they struggle in either area, you will see sacks much like Mark Sanchez and Matt Moore suffered in their games against the Eagles.

Opposing voice: Brian Orakpo

September, 24, 2011
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IRVING, Texas -- The Redskins would not have been able to move to the 3-4 defense without Brian Orakpo. The UT-ex has the size, speed and athleticism to be the prototype outside linebacker.

He became the first Washington player to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first two seasons and since 2009 he has 20.5 sacks. He has one in the first two games this season as he tries to join the elite outside linebackers, like the Cowboys’ DeMarcus Ware.

“You look at a lot of guys around the league when it comes to the 3-4,” Orakpo said. “You can take Ware; you can take James Harrison; you can take [Clay] Matthews. Everybody looks at each other. Everybody sees what they can get better at. Sees what the other guys are doing to get sacks, to get pressure. Just making themselves better. I try to study and I try to look at everybody that especially when that opponent is next week. I try to look at the film and try to get myself better at getting there.”

While Orakpo would not say whether he was in the class of those linebackers, his coach, Mike Shanahan, did.

“The proof is getting it done week in and week out,” Shanahan said. “But I like what we have in Brian.”

Power Rankings: Top 10 defensive players

May, 24, 2011
5/24/11
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NFL power rankings: Defensive PlayersESPN.com IllustrationTroy Polamalu (43) was the unanimous choice among our bloggers as the NFL's top defensive player.
During the unprecedented offseason of 2011, ESPN.com has ranked the top pass-rushers in the NFL. We've ordered linebackers, rated cornerbacks and chosen the league's top 10 safeties as well. Now it's time to start putting it all together.

This week's challenge: Meld those four ballots into a single list of the NFL's 10 best defensive players. The subtle shift in parameters required us to consider not only a player's individual impact, but the overall importance of his position to the game.
Both in the draft and in the free-agent market, NFL teams place premium value on pass-rushers and interior defensive linemen. Other positions, most notably safeties, are relegated to secondary priorities. So in that sense, it's both remarkable and telling that Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu was the unanimous top choice of our committee.

"Troy has a skill set that I've never seen from the safety position," said AFC North blogger James Walker, who has covered Polamalu for years. "He has the hands, coverage skills and acceleration of a corner, but the instincts and timing on the blitz and against the run like a linebacker. When I've asked coaches to draw a comparison to another safety, they struggle to come up with a name, because there's really no one like him. [Steelers defensive coordinator] Dick LeBeau also deserves credit for building his defense around Troy, because that's really hard to do for a safety."

To what extent do NFL teams typically value safeties? Consider that in last month's draft, the first safety wasn't selected until midway through the second round (UCLA's Rahim Moore, by the Denver Broncos, at No. 45 overall). And in determining franchise tag numbers for a potential 2011 market before the lockout, the league was set to assign safeties the third-lowest figure among all positions, ahead of only tight ends and kickers.

One other safety made our list: Ed Reed of the Baltimore Ravens. But for the most part, the list was dominated by players known for getting to the quarterback. Our top pass-rusher, Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware, ranked second. Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison and Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers were among our top eight.

NFC East blogger Dan Graziano rated Ware No. 7 overall and is braced for the wrath of his new readership, but I thought it was healthy and important to add a fresh view that didn't participate in our individual position rankings.

"Guys like Harrison and [Ravens defensive tackle Haloti] Ngata made more of an impression on me," Graziano said. "I certainly don't think calling someone the seventh-best defensive player in the league is any kind of insult. But from what I watched the past couple of years, I felt guys like that impacted the games in which they played more completely than did Ware. If I made a mistake, I'm certainly happy to own up to it and listen to the reasons why I was wrong."

In this debate, right and wrong mattered less than philosophy. Graziano, for example, rated New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis No. 2 overall and also included Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha at No. 8. On the other side of the spectrum, I joined NFC West blogger Mike Sando in choosing only one cornerback (Revis) and one safety (Polamalu). Sando, in fact, ranked Revis No. 9.

Neither one of us has any argument with the skills of Asomugha or Reed. But on a ranking of overall defensive players, we found it difficult to include more than two defensive backs.

"I moved down Revis and cornerbacks in general," Sando said, "for the same reason Patrick Peterson went fifth in the draft despite being arguably the best player available. It's just tougher for a cornerback to affect offenses the way a great front-seven player affects them. Quarterbacks can throw away from them."

Along those lines, Sando gave the highest vote for the player who topped our linebacker rankings, Patrick Willis of the San Francisco 49ers, placing him at No. 2. Willis finished No. 4 with votes ranking anywhere from No. 2 to No. 8

"Willis has no weaknesses and there is no avoiding him on the field," Sando said. "I've seen him return an interception 86 yards for a touchdown, knock out wide receivers with crushing hits, punish quarterbacks on blitzes and scrambles, lift a Pro Bowl offensive lineman off the ground in run support and just generally dominate. He was a serious candidate for the No. 1 spot on my ballot."

Matthews also received a wide range of votes, finishing No. 5 despite three ballots that placed him No. 2, including mine. Most of us considered Ware the top pass-rusher a few months ago, but a few believe Matthews is the better all-around player from the 3-4 outside linebacker position.

"Clay Matthews makes as many game-changing plays as any defender in the league," said NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas, who joined the AFC South's Paul Kuharsky and myself on the Matthews bandwagon. "That makes him one of the league's best defenders in my eyes. And it doesn't hurt that his team has the Lombardi trophy at the moment."

Said Kuharsky: "Matthews is so dynamic and energetic it made it very difficult for me not to constantly circle back to him as I consider the highest-impact defenders in the league. That Seifert and Yasinskas also rate him second just goes to prove that what everyone says about those two is dead wrong."

A backhanded compliment from Paul Kuharsky? I can't think of a better line to close on.


Power Rankings: Top 10 NFL linebackers

April, 12, 2011
4/12/11
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Power Rankings Linebackers ESPN.com IllustrationSan Francisco's Patrick Willis ran away from the field in our voting for the NFL's best linebacker.
ESPN.com’s NFL writers rank the top 10 linebackers in the league today. Next week: Top 10 cornerbacks.

San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis beat out a strong and diverse field for top billing in ESPN.com's latest positional power rankings.

All eight panelists ranked Willis among their top three, elevating the 26-year-old perennial Pro Bowler above James Harrison and DeMarcus Ware as our No. 1 linebacker in the NFL.

Even 12-time Pro Bowler Ray Lewis, the dominant linebacker of his era, pointed to Willis as a worthy successor to his undisputed reign. Not that Lewis is finished just yet. He placed fifth in the rankings behind Willis, Harrison, Ware and the Green Bay Packers' Clay Matthews. But there was no more complete linebacker than Willis.

"Nobody in the NFL plays their position better than Patrick Willis, and that is saying a lot," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc., whose insights helped shape my ballot. "He is as good a linebacker as Peyton Manning is a quarterback, as Andre Johnson is a receiver, as Adrian Peterson is a running back. He has no weaknesses."

Willis, a three-time Associated Press All-Pro first-team selection, is the first 49ers player since Ronnie Lott to earn Pro Bowl honors in each of his first four seasons. Joe Thomas and Peterson are the only other 2007 draft choices with four Pro Bowls.

Apples and oranges: Comparing linebackers from 3-4 schemes to their 4-3 counterparts proved problematic for some panelists. AFC East blogger Tim Graham ranked Ware first among pass-rushers three weeks ago, but only ninth among linebackers.

"Patrick Willis, Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis would be great linebackers in a 3-4 or a 4-3," Graham explained. "DeMarcus Ware and Cameron Wake might not even be linebackers if they played in Indianapolis, Tennessee or Minnesota. At some point, I had to value elite pass-rushing abilities on my list even though those players aren't universal-type linebackers."

There was room for differing views. ESPN.com's John Clayton and AFC North blogger James Walker ranked Ware first among linebackers and first among pass-rushers. AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky ranked Ware first among linebackers and second among pass-rushers.

"Separating Ware, Willis and Harrison is like splitting hairs, because it really depends on what you want in a linebacker," said Walker, who went with Ware, Willis and Harrison atop his ballot. "Ware is a slightly better pass-rusher than Harrison, and Willis is a future Hall of Famer in his prime. Age also has to be a consideration if you’re building a defense, and Harrison will be 33 in May. But they're all great."

First things first: Graham and NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert joined me in ranking Willis first. AFC West blogger Bill Williamson had Willis second only to Harrison.

"When I think of linebacker play in the current day, James Harrison pops out," Bill Williamson said. "I think he’s the gold standard of complete linebacker play. Look at his signature play in the Super Bowl against Arizona. That play will forever be part of NFL lore. Patrick Willis, who is also a great player, doesn’t have that play on his résumé. Plus, Harrison is an ornery cuss on the field. The man was born to be a 'backer."

Willis can't match Harrison in Super Bowl memories -- he could use a quarterback, for starters -- but he's not hurting for signature plays:
Lewis pointed to Willis when ESPN's Dana Jacobson recently asked him which young linebacker reminded Lewis of himself.

"I just love the way he plays the game," Lewis said. "He plays the game with a fire. He reminds me of myself -- a lot, a lot, a lot."

Unanimous decisions: The top five finishers received votes from all eight panelists. The gaps between highest and lowest votes fell between four and seven places for all but Willis, who ranked no lower than third.

Seifert ranked Lewis third. I had Lewis 10th and feared I might be measuring him against himself. No list of top linebackers would be complete without him, I thought, but a younger generation is taking over.

Hugs for Suggs: Lewis' teammate, Terrell Suggs, finished just out of our top 10 despite getting a No. 5 ranking from Kuharsky.

[+] EnlargePatrick Willis
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswirePatrick Willis has averaged nearly 149 tackles per season since joining the league in 2007.
"I unabashedly love Suggs, and frankly would have placed him higher if I thought there was any way he needed help to crack the top 10," Kuharsky said. "To me, there is a great deal of subjectivity in ranking this position when mixing guys from 4-3s and 3-4s, so I did a lot of know-them-when-I-see-them ranking. Suggs is absolutely a top-10 guy to me."

Clayton, Seifert, Graham and I did not list Suggs on our ballots while searching for the right mix of 3-4 and 4-3 talent.

Fit to be tied: The players tied for ninth on our list illustrate the varied criteria for the position. Kansas City's Tamba Hali is a pure pass-rusher in the Chiefs' 3-4 defense. Carolina's Jon Beason is a traditional 4-3 linebacker with the versatility to play multiple spots. He changed positions twice in 2010.

Beason peaked at No. 5 on my ballot. NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas had Beason sixth and considered ranking him higher.

"There was a time when I would have ranked Beason in the same echelon as Willis," Yasinskas said. "I think he has a chance to re-emerge if Carolina can put a better team on the field, particularly by getting better at defensive tackle and keeping blockers off Beason. If that happens, I think Beason can be as good as any linebacker in the league."

Youth on his side: New England's Jerod Mayo appeared on six of eight ballots, ranking sixth overall between Lewis and Urlacher. At 25, Mayo was one of two linebackers younger than Willis to earn a spot among the top 10. Matthews, 24, was the other. Graham ranked Mayo third.

"Nose tackle Vince Wilfork might be the anchor of the Patriots' defense, but Mayo is the one who ties their defense together," Graham said. "Mayo is a tackling machine who compensates for shortcomings at outside linebacker and injuries along the defensive line. He would be a star in any system."

On an island: Four linebackers received a single vote. That list featured Brian Orakpo (Clayton), Lance Briggs (Seifert), London Fletcher (Walker) and Wake (Graham).

Best doesn't mean most valuable: Matt Williamson called linebacker the toughest position to evaluate. I'll close by passing along a few of his thoughts:

  • "Willis is so exceptional it would be a coin flip with Ware. Willis has no weaknesses, but if I were a general manager, I would take Ware because pass-rushers are so hard to find. You can get away with a C-level middle linebacker and still have a good defense. You can have a two-down run-stopper and pull him out in nickel."
  • "Ray Lewis would not be in my top five at this point. For his age, he is still exceptional and a borderline Pro Bowler, but he doesn't run like he did. I remember when I was with the Browns, I looked at every report the team had written since 1999 and Lewis had the highest grade ever given out. He was nearly perfect."
  • "Hali is a one-trick pony, a pass-rusher, but he is great at it -- as good as any pass-rusher in the league."
  • "Beason is like Patrick Willis, but he is 95 percent of him. He can play outside, inside, he's smart -- but there is so little around him that people don't realize how good he is."
  • "Pass rushing is Clay Matthews' greatest gift, but he is the prototypical outside linebacker. He's a great technician and way more explosive and athletic than people realize. He's good in coverage, not great, but they line him up all over."
  • "London Fletcher is underrated, but not in this conversation. How Beason is to Willis, Fletcher is to Lewis. He is smaller and slower than Lewis, good among older guys."
  • "Brian Urlacher is still a really good player, but the top 10 might be a stretch. I would take him ahead of Lewis, behind Beason and Willis among 'Mike' 'backers. He is good in coverage. People forget that he was a safety at New Mexico. He doesn't run like he used to and is just not as dynamic as he was in the day."
  • "The Steelers have the best linebackers in the league. LaMarr Woodley is very strong and in that conversation too. Definitely top 15. Harrison is great against the run, extremely strong and one of the few linebackers in the league that is a difference-maker from an attitude standpoint. He brings attitude to the table like a Jack Lambert or a Dick Butkus or a Ray Lewis type. He is feared. He is one of the best leverage players in the league, great in pursuit, tenacious as hell. The other guy to know about is Lawrence Timmons. He will be spectacular."

Power Rankings: Top 10 NFL pass-rushers

March, 22, 2011
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Clay Matthews/DeMarcus Ware/Dwight Freeney/Jared AllenESPN.com IllustrationDeMarcus Ware (94) was the clear choice for the top spot when our writers ranked the best pass-rushers in the game.
ESPN.com’s NFL writers rank the top 10 pass-rushers in the league today. Next week: Top 10 tight ends.

ESPN.com's panel of power rankers had no trouble identifying the best pass-rusher in football. The rest of our Top 10 list? It was easily the most difficult to compile so far in what will be a 10-week project.

Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware received seven of eight first-place votes. AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky ranked him No. 2, putting Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney at the top of his ballot. Overall, a total of 17 players received votes, and the crowd was dense enough to exclude established veterans such as Houston Texans defensive end Mario Williams, New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs and Colts defensive end Robert Mathis.

The category was tough, explained NFC West blogger Mike Sando, because "sack numbers tend to fluctuate from year to year and it's tougher to know which pass-rushers are truly the best. I think the proliferation of 3-4 defenses also made this a tougher call. We weren't evaluating defensive ends exclusively. We were also looking at 3-4 outside linebackers. That deepened the pool while forcing us to compare players at more than one position."

Ware, for one, wasn't a difficult choice -- as long as sacks are the primary statistical representation of pass rushing. Ware led the NFL in sacks last season with 15.5, and he has also had more combined sacks over the past two, three and five seasons combined than any other NFL player. At 28, he would seem to have several ultra-productive seasons remaining in his career.

Beyond Ware, however, the debate was fierce. The Green Bay Packers' Clay Matthews received the second-most votes (61), but there wasn't much separating him from Freeney (58) or Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen (52).

[+] EnlargeDallas' DeMarcus Ware
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesDeMarcus Ware had 15.5 sacks last season and has 80 sacks in six seasons in the NFL.
Kuharsky's familiarity with Freeney gave him a unique perspective.

"I've had coaches and scouts I trust tell me, repeatedly, that Freeney is the best pure pass-rusher in the league," Kuharsky said. "They say he's the guy they'd want if they could have anyone and the most difficult guy to stop because of the way he plots out his game. That's stuck with me and was a big factor for me as I put together my ballot."

From an NFC North perspective, I think it's interesting that Ware is the only NFL player who has recorded more sacks than Allen over the past five seasons. Allen's total of 11.0 last season was his low-water mark over the last four seasons, however, and the explicit instructions for voters were to base judgments on what we can expect for the 2011 season.

Given a choice between Allen, Matthews or Freeney in building a Super Bowl team for 2011, whom would you choose? With all due respect for Freeney (and Kuharsky, such that he deserves it) Matthews, 24, seems the right answer to me.

Matthews, Allen and Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers gave the NFC North a league-high three members of this exclusive group. Peppers' all-around contributions last season earned him a spot on The Associated Press' All-Pro team, but his total of eight sacks left him ranked eighth on our list.

Illustrating the difficulty of this exercise, two voters left Peppers off their ballots entirely and a third -- AFC North blogger James Walker -- ranked him No. 10. The Atlanta Falcons' John Abraham, The Associated Press' other first-team All-Pro defensive end, ranked a composite No. 7.

NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas, who covers Abraham and until 2010 covered Peppers as well, ranked Peppers No. 5 and said: "I know the sack numbers can rise and fall, but he has the ability to completely take over a game at any time." Meanwhile, a younger Abraham would have ranked higher.

"He had 11 sacks last year but 5.5 the year before," Yasinskas said. "At 32, you have to at least question whether he would sustain 2010 numbers in 2011."

Finally, if you're outraged about the absence of Williams, Tuck, Suggs, Mathis, the Philadelphia Eagles' Trent Cole or even the Denver Broncos' Elvis Dumervil, you probably need to focus your ire at the inclusion of Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake. In his second NFL season, Wake exploded for 14 sacks.

Does one elite season merit inclusion on this list? Opinions varied widely among our voters. Wake was left off three ballots and voted No. 10 on three others. AFC East blogger Tim Graham, who saw more of Wake last season than any other voter, placed him No. 4.

"If we're ranking the best overall defensive ends or outside linebackers, then maybe Cameron Wake doesn't make my list," Graham said. "He's not a run-stuffer and is lacking when it comes to pass coverage. But we're rating pure pass-rushers, and that's the one thing Wake does on an elite level. He's a freakishly gifted athlete who creates havoc in the backfield.

"I also don't view Wake as a one-year wonder because he had a strong season in 2009 despite playing behind Joey Porter and Jason Taylor in most situations and under a different defensive coordinator. He should continue to thrive under Mike Nolan's guidance. I view Wake as a legitimate star who was overlooked on a mediocre team."

Your thoughts? I'm expecting them.

Former draft pick stars for Packers

January, 3, 2011
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In case you missed it Sunday, someone named Erik Walden sacked Jay Cutler twice Sunday and had 11 tackles. Walden was a sixth-round pick by the Dallas Cowboys in '08, but he didn't make the team. He'd spent most of his career with the Miami Dolphins, but the Packers signed him off the street in late October.

Walden
Walden
Now, he's making a name for himself after replacing the injured Frank Zombo as the starter at right outside linebacker. I vaguely remember Walden from training camp in '08, but nothing about the former Middle Tennessee player stood out. But he was arguably the best defensive player on the field Sunday, and now he'll prepare to face Michael Vick.

"A lot of guys, probably names you haven't heard this season, have come up big for us," Packers Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson told reporters following Sunday's win over the Bears. "Walden had a huge day for us. You haven't heard his name a lot this year. He's a new guy on this team, but he stepped up big.

"That has had to happen with the amount of injuries we've had. We haven't had guys that have been out two weeks, three weeks. We've had guys on [injured reserve] who couldn't come back. Backups and practice squad guys who have been called up, they've had to play and play well in order for us to get into the playoffs."

The Eagles will have to focus a lot of their attention on Packers linebacker Clay Matthews on Sunday, so Walden will probably have plenty of opportunities against one-on-one blocking. Everyone talks about the Packers being a dangerous No. 6 seed based on their offense, but their defense has been equally (if not more) impressive this season.

Scout's Eye: Cowboys-Packers review

November, 9, 2010
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When studying the Packers, the one question that kept popping into my mind was how were the Packers managing to hold things together with all the injuries that they had suffered throughout the first half of this season and still be so competitive in the games they had played in 2010?

Despite all those injuries, the Packers still were going to present problems for the Cowboys because there were no phases of the game that the Cowboys were playing particularly well coming into Sunday night.

Scout's Eye
This was the third game that I watched of Packers linebacker Clay Matthews and I have to say that I was impressed with his skill level for such a young player. To Marc Colombo’s credit, he fought Matthews well, having limited time to practice with some back problems during the week leading up to the game. Matthews is a relentless, high effort and motor type of player. He plays with outstanding technique and desire. He slaps, grabs, spins all in the effort to free himself and get to the quarterback or the ball carrier.

The one big play that he had was on a twist when Colombo worked outside to pick up a blitzing Charles Woodson and Matthews worked inside over Leonard Davis, who got picked off by Andre Gurode blocking his man into Davis. It was an outstanding call by Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his staff to understand that the way to attack the Cowboys is through the middle because the center and guard have difficulty adjusting to stunts.

Another area that Capers hurt the Cowboys was in the use of Woodson as a blitzer out of the slot. When you play the Packers, there are two areas that you really have to prepare for, Matthews and Woodson coming off the edge. There are players in the NFL that are good blitzers from the secondary and then there is Woodson.

I can’t understand scheme-wise why Jon Kitna did not see that Woodson was going to come off the edge by his alignment. If Stephen McGee is in the game, I understand it, but not a quarterback with 14 years of NFL experience. On the play, Woodson is lined up to Kitna’s right along with Matthews. On the snap, Kitna never looks his way and Woodson takes a free run at him. To the side of the play Jason Witten reads “hot” and looks for the ball. Kitna’s head and eyes never see Woodson to his right and Woodson jars the ball loose. Felix Jones who was running a route in the middle of the field dives on the lose ball.

Speaking of Jones, why is he being used as a pass blocker? The best pass blocker for the Cowboys as far as the running backs go is Marion Barber. If I was doing advance scouting against the Cowboys, I would pass along to my coaches to make Jones have to play in the pass game as a blocker. His technique is very inconsistent. One time he will try and hit you square, the next he will fake like he is going to cut block then lunge at his man and miss.

Jones’ missed assignment in the passing game caused a sack and fumble on a max protection situation. Witten is lined up right and stays in to help block on Matthews. On this play, Jones is responsible for the end man on the left, which is linebacker Desmond Bishop. As Kitna takes the snap, Jones steps forward, never looking to the outside but keeping his focus inside Bishop with a free run at Kitna, and by the time he sees what is happening, it’s too late.

Just for future thought, the opportunities that Tashard Choice got later in the game to pass block were not much better technique-wise. Again, if I was scouting the Cowboys, I would make these running backs block in the passing game.

*Let’s be honest, Jerry Jones didn’t fire his head coach, but he fired his defensive coordinator. Jones grew tired of watching his defense struggle under Phillips, who for some reason could not get his 3-4 defense to play with the same skill, technique and passion that he had for the years that he ran the defense.

Jones brought Phillips in to build him a shutdown defense, but as the losses piled up and the mistakes occurred from play to play, series to series and game to game, Jones could not stand by and continue to watch it happen.

These are the same players that Phillips made excuses that let him down and cost him his job.

Missed tackles in the secondary; linebackers that don’t maintain contain and allow the quarterbacks to run for large gains, safeties that don’t react to plays in the red zone when they know that they have that receiver one-on-one. It’s defensive linemen that point the finger at the offense about running the football but do nothing to get off blocks to keep the opponent from running the ball on him.

Where does new defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni start in trying to once again bring this defense back to some NFL respectability? First off, the players need to do what is asked of them scheme-wise. It’s one thing to get beat physically but another to not know what your assignment is.

“Street ball” is never a good way to play defense. If you have man coverage, then take your man and do your job. If you have contain, don’t jump around the block and get pinned inside, keep your outside leverage and force the play back inside to your help.

I would not be a bit surprised to see Pasqualoni try to find some areas that this defense might be good in and hammer those at practice. Instead of doing too much, try to find things that they can be successful at and build from there until you get some kind of confidence.

There is plenty of bad to study and eliminate that from the plan. The Cowboys need to get back to those things that got this defense off the field on third downs in seasons past.

Grudge Match: Cowboys-Packers

November, 6, 2010
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video

A look at the matchups for Sunday's Cowboys-Packers game at Lambeau Field:

Cowboys right tackle Marc Colombo vs. Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews: The Packers are one of the top teams in the NFL when it comes to putting pressure on the quarterback and converting that pressure into the sacks. The Packers can get a tremendous push from its front of Cullen Jenkins, B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett, but the player that seals the deal is linebacker Clay Matthews.

Matthews is leading the NFL in sacks with 9.5 and truly is one of the best young players in the league. He is relentless with his effort, but more impressive is his technique and how he works to the quarterback.

Matthews has various pass-rush moves and the interesting thing is that he is able to do this while on the move. Matthews doesn’t slow his rush down to work his craft. I have seen him dip, rip, slap and grab a tackle in the effort to get to the quarterback for the sack. He shows a nice burst of quickness and plays with some power as well.

Colombo has been limited at practice with a back problem, but he is tough and fully understands the task ahead. Colombo can get in trouble when his base gets too wide and he becomes overextended. When he plays over the tops of his feet, he struggles to move. If Colombo can get a good punch on Matthews, throw his timing off and make him reset set his rush, he has a chance in the battle.

The health of Colombo has to be a concern because even healthy this was going to be difficult. The Cowboys cannot allow Matthews to control this game if they want to be successful.

Cowboys nose tackle Jay Ratliff vs. Packers center Scott Wells: This is a battle that the Cowboys have to win.

Ratliff is a Pro Bowl nose that has seen his share of double-teams all season, so his production has not been at the typical level that for him. I am going to be real honest, Wells is not athletic or skilled enough to block Ratliff throughout the game. He will need help.

Ratliff and Josh Brent need to control the front of this pocket. Aaron Rodgers loves to move around in the pocket and buy time and chances. If Rodgers has no place to step up and deliver the football, the Cowboys could create opportunities for stops.

Look for Ratliff to use his quickness and strength to give Wells problems. Ratliff can get push on Wells but he can also create problems in the blocking scheme. The more that the Packers have to commit to handling Ratliff, the more others can benefit.

If the front of the pocket is clean for the Packers, they will have success moving the football. But if Ratliff causes problems, the necessary stops can be made.

Cowboys wide receiver Miles Austin vs. Packers cornerback Charles Woodson: In my views of the Packers secondary, Charles Woodson is their best defensive player. On base, he plays on the outside, but he will usually play in the slot in the nickel.

In 2009, Woodson covered tight end Jason Witten during certain packages. I have a feeling that defensive coordinator Dom Capers will not allow Witten to beat him in this game, especially with Kitna at quarterback, but he will also try to match Woodson on Austin as well.

One of the best routes that Austin runs is the slant. Woodson is an aggressive corner that is physical on receivers. He doesn’t allow much separation and he does a solid job of reading the quarterback and receiver and driving on the football.

Austin knows what Woodson’s game entails, so he will be ready for some seriously tight coverage. Austin is a physical player in his own right, so he will be up to the challenge.

Will be interested to see if the Cowboys put Austin in the slot or try to work him on the outside in some other matchups. If the Cowboys do this, will the Packers counter by moving Woodson with Austin? Regardless, Woodson will most likely see coverage on the two best weapons on the Cowboys offense.

Scout's Eye: Cowboys-Packers preview

November, 5, 2010
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The last time that these two historic franchises met was in 2009 on a Sunday afternoon contest at Lambaeu Field. The Packers were at a real crossroads in their season with a record of 4-4 and really going nowhere after back-to-back losses to the Vikings and the Bucs. The Cowboys were 6-2 and all seemed right in the world for the team as they prepared for that trip to Green Bay riding a four-game winning streak.

Scout's Eye
The Packers beat the Cowboys 17-7 and that day saved their season. As we approach week 8 of the NFL season, you will find much of the same talk that was in Green Bay last year is now here in Dallas.

The general manager needs to make a coaching change and the players are not near as talented as we all thought they were. Sitting at 1-6, players and coaches are now left wondering what has happened to their season.

The Jacksonville game was the worst that I had seen this team look all season. I understand what happened in the Giants game because I know New York’s personnel, but to lose to the Jaguars was beyond reason.

The one outstanding thing about the NFL is that Sunday offers you another opportunity to compete for the chance to either improve or continue to have to answer the difficult questions that come with losing. The Cowboys travel to Lambeau Field and will attempt to get a win against a good football team but not a great one.

This is a Green Bay team that has been struck with injuries to key members of their team, such as tight end Jermichael Finley, running back Ryan Grant, safety Morgan Burnett and linebacker Nick Barnett. all of whom have gone on injured reserve. Coming into this contest with the Cowboys, the Packers best receiver, Donald Driver, will miss this game with a quad injury.

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesPackers QB Aaron Rodgers is an accurate passer that throws a pretty deep ball and shows wonderful touch on his passes.
Despite this rash of injuries, the Packers have managed to hold things together and fight for five victories. One of the main reasons that the Packers have been playing well is quarterback Aaron Rodgers. What has been really impressive about Rodgers is his ability to continue to make plays without any type of running game, a rookie at right tackle, an outstanding tight end on injured reverse and a tough, gritty receiver that was trying to fight through a quad injury to help his team win games.

When you study Rodgers, you see a quarterback that is mobile, decisive and just doesn’t make mistakes with the football. In the Vikings game earlier this year, Rodgers had his first red zone interception in 39 starts.

The Packers are 32-6 when they are ahead in the turnover battle and 6-17 when they are not. Rodgers rarely makes any kind of mistakes.

Where Rodgers is the most effective is when he can get in the shotgun and work in their three-wide receiver packages. He is an accurate passer that throws a pretty deep ball and shows wonderful touch on his passes.

I mentioned how mobile he is in the pocket, and when opportunities to move forward and make throws present themselves, he is more than up to the challenge. Where the Cowboys have to be careful is not allow Rodgers to use his legs to make second-chance plays.

In the 2009 game, Jay Ratliff did a nice job of playing against Packers center Scott Wells. If Ratliff can break down the middle of the pocket, it will give no place for Rodgers to step up and make throws.

Where the Cowboys also had some success against the Packers last season was the slot blitz with Orlando Scandrick. Would not be one bit surprised if Wade Phillips has that one in his game plan and ready to go.

This game will be won for the Packers if they are able to protect Rodgers. I am not impressed at all with Brandon Jackson at running back and I think this is a handicap for the Packers.

Rodgers throwing the football is the way that the Packers will go but again, protection will be key and the Packers are in the top 10 in allowing sacks per attempt.

* For defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his Packers defense, the rankings have not been all that impressive, but they do stand out in sacks and points allowed.

[+] EnlargeClay Matthews
AP Photo/David DrapkinPackers LB Clay Matthews is a relentless, high effort and motor type of guy who never stops coming after the quarterback and the ball.
This team does an outstanding job of getting after the quarterback and it really starts with linebacker Clay Matthews. Matthews is a relentless, high effort and motor type of guy. He never stops coming after the quarterback and the ball.

For a second-year player, he has tremendous skill as a pass rusher. His technique is that of players with much more experience in the league. Swat, swim, rip, duck, spin … but all the time, working his way up the field.

What is interesting about Matthews is that he is doing it from one side the majority of the time. He will line up to the offense’s right and work against your right tackle. For the Cowboys, the blocking assignment will fall to Marc Colombo, who has been limited in practice with the back condition. Matthews against a healthy tackle is a handful, but Colombo is a veteran that plays with a great deal of toughness and much more of that than skill.

When Jon Kitna comes to the line, there is no doubt in my mind that he will use his pre-snap reads to direct protection to Matthews’ side. There is no way that the Cowboys can allow Matthews to take over this game as a rusher if they are unable to run the football. Look for the Cowboys to commit as many blockers as they can to help Colombo manage the game against Matthews.

The Packers secondary does a nice job of playing the ball in the air. Since 2008, cornerback Charles Woodson and safety Nick Collins have 18 and 14 interceptions respectively. Both of these players are always around the football.

Woodson is a master of creating the turnover. He is always punching and grabbing at the football. The Cowboys ball carriers need to be well aware of Woodson when he is in the middle of the tackle.

In 2010, the Packers’ 15 takeaways have been converted into eight touchdowns and the Packers have scored points in 14 straight games off turnovers at Lambeau Field.

In the 2009, it was Woodson that covered tight end Jason Witten in certain situations. Woodson will usually play in the slot on nickel so he could also see some time on Miles Austin.

Kitna and the Cowboys offense need to be aware of Woodson when he is around the line of scrimmage because Capers will use him as a blitzer. Woodson is one of the best in NFL history when he comes on a blitz. He has a real feel for how to separate the ball from the quarterback. When you study him, you can see that he takes a great deal of pride in doing this job for his team.

This will be a difficult task for the Cowboys ahead because the Packers play well at Lambeau, where they are 22-8 in the last 30 home games. But this is an opportunity to restore some pride and move forward for the Cowboys instead of continuing to have to answer the questions of what once again went wrong in a loss.

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