GREEN BAY – Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott is just a rookie, but the descriptions of him coming from the Packers this week sound awfully old and familiar.
Here’s a sampling from two Green Bay linebackers, a rookie and a veteran.
Blake Martinez: “He has incredible vision. That’s the main thing that you see. He gets bottled up, and the next thing you know … (he) can jump to the left real quick, maybe (break) a tackle, and then he’s spurting through that gap instantly and he goes for 50 yards.”
Clay Matthews: “He makes you pay when you don’t just stay in your gap and do your job.”
Those are thoughts that have been tossed around amongst Green Bay defenders since Adrian Peterson entered the NFC North back in 2007. The Packers have been defending him twice a year since, and without Peterson’s name being mentioned, Elliott’s game film seems to have put Green Bay in a similar state of alert.
Backs like this are never down until they’re on the ground, covered up. The play is never over. While they have the power to go right through where a play is designed, they can also improvise with the best of them.
Defending them requires discipline, and when the Packers watched the film from their first meeting with the Cowboys and Elliott back on Oct. 16, they saw the defense lacking it.
The Packers were pretty jacked up for that game, and it may have cost them. They brought the league’s No. 1-ranked run defense at the time against the league’s No. 1-ranked run offense. It ended up rather one-sided, as Elliott ran for 157 of the Cowboys’ 191 rushing yards overall.
Elliott was productive without controlling the game early. He had runs of 11 and 14 yards in the first half and totaled 60 at halftime. But in the second half he broke off runs of 25 and 29 yards as the game got away from Green Bay.
“You look at the first game, a few guys played outside their assignment, and it’s ultimately what hurt us as far as giving up a few of those big runs,” Matthews said.
Give the Cowboys’ offensive line its share of credit. The unit is considered the best run-blocking group in the league for a reason. “Trying to do too much,” which is another common phrase heard when players aren’t assignment-sound, wasn’t the only reason for the 157 yards, by far the highest single-game total any back racked up against Green Bay this season.
Elliott is also a special back, as good if not better than advertised when the Packers saw him in person for the first time. He won the league rushing title by more than 300 yards with 1,631, and he didn’t play in Week 17.
“He runs through creases – which is something I always look for on film – he doesn’t run through holes,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “The difference between that is he’s accelerating … he’s coming out as it opens, he’s not waiting for it to open and then run through it.
“That in itself leads to a very instinctive player, (plus) durability, production, and he can finish it. He can really finish the runs. When he gets to the second level, he’s a really different player.”
All that said, a return to the more disciplined play the Packers have employed over the years in their successful efforts against Peterson could go a long way on Sunday in Dallas. Elliott is going to get his yards. He just can’t be allowed to take over the game.
In 10 of 18 games over the last decade against the Minnesota star, the Packers have held Peterson under 100 yards, so they know how to do it.
Even the guys in Elliott’s rookie class.
“Everyone’s trusting the guy next to them, one guy for one gap, and all 11 guys are going to be in the right spot at the right time and get him down,” Martinez said of how it’s done.
Added veteran Letroy Guion, a former teammate of Peterson’s: “We have to stay in our gaps and stay home this game. If everybody does their job, we should be fine.”