This is Playoff Primer, and after spending the bye week breaking down the offense, we will shift over to the defense now to actually talk about how Dallas matches up with Green Bay's offense. Stunning, right?
Let's get started and talk about Rod Marinelli's linebackers.
Sean Lee has never played in the postseason for the Dallas Cowboys, but his much-anticipated debut will come at the perfect time. Lee had 13 tackles against the Packers on the road this season, and has stayed healthy throughout 2016 at the WILL linebacker position.
While Lee may not make as many game changing plays at this weak side spot compared to his days at MIKE linebacker, “The General” is still a tackle machine that is going to be relied on to keep this team focused defensively in the playoffs on every snap.
At this point, the Cowboys' defensive line is what it is, and their middle-of-the-road play puts a lot of pressure at times on the second-level linebackers. In this match up with the Packers specifically, Green Bay will look to establish a running game that has received a spark from Christine Michael.
It will be up to Lee to be the sideline to sideline player that we know him to be in order to force Aaron Rodgers into obvious passing situations, where Dallas' “clog and cover” scheme can be deployed in full effect.
Sean Lee means so much to the Dallas Cowboys, and Cowboys Nation knows that nobody will want to succeed in the playoffs more than Lee in his first appearance.
How do you remain committed when injuries steal your chances for success?
— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) January 8, 2017
Entering his third season in 2016, expectations were high for Anthony Hitchens to step up in a big way as the starting MIKE linebacker. While it hasn't exactly worked out, and Hitchens has faced plenty of criticism for some mental lapses on plays at times, the Iowa product does have a new career high in tackles with 78.
Is Anthony Hitchens' spot on this defense one that can be upgraded? Absolutely – and that upgrade is hopefully on the roster in the form of Jaylon Smith. For now, Rod Marinelli can hope to get Hitchens playing physical and downhill, which is when he is at his best finding the football.
When Hitchens struggles, it is typically because he loses his awareness and positioning, which in turn takes away his ability to be a hard-hitting run stopper. Look for the Packers to try to force Hitchens to do a lot of different things both as a run and pass defender in this game.
Ever since being drafted by the Cowboys in 2015, Damien Wilson has been one of my “pet cats”. As a paintball player, I even defended him through his bizarre 2016 training camp injury that nearly made him a forgotten man.
Now, after never seeing the field again following that overtime loss in New Orleans his rookie season, Wilson is the Cowboys' starter at SAM linebacker – and a very solid one at that.
Playing a position that often comes off the field when Dallas plays in “Nickel” and “Dime” packages, Wilson has earned his playing time over veteran options at strong side linebacker like Kyle Wilber and Andrew Gachkar.
Although his role may be smaller compared to the other linebackers on this team, Wilson rarely goes unnoticed, rallying to the ball with his speed and surprising block-shedding ability.
Wilson can play as a down the line type of player with a good center of gravity and burst. #57 is definitely a player to keep an eye on against Green Bay, and throughout the postseason.
Back for his second stint with the Dallas Cowboys, Durant has been about everything the team expected when they added him for depth this summer. On the field for just an average of 31% of defensive snaps, Durant has a veteran knack for making huge tackles at the most opportune times.
Unfortunately, Durant has not been on the field as often as he could have hoped, missing the final two weeks of the regular season and leaving his playoff status up in the air. If he has any chance of getting back on the field, expect him to do so, and to continue to find ways to put himself in position to make plays.
The Cowboys have obviously responded on defense without the services of Mark Nzeocha for much of this season, but the physical MIKE type linebacker returned against the Eagles to play 16 snaps in week 17.
Nzeocha may be a better fit at the middle linebacker spot than Anthony Hitchens, but with Hitchens getting all of the reps throughout the season, I expect Mark Nzeocha's role to be relatively limited in these playoffs.
As far as depth goes though, if Nzeocha is needed, he is not a bad option at all to patrol the middle of the field in Marinelli's defense.
I hope you enjoyed this first edition of Playoff Primer on the defensive side of the ball. Click here to catch up on previous editions of the series!