Key Matchups To Watch On Sunday


CB Al Harris

As with any football game involving two playoff-caliber teams, Sunday night's contest between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers isn't going to come down to just one or two key areas.

There are several matchups that can and will tip the balance one way or the other, and they all bear watching as the NFL's marquee showdown of Week 3 - the only game involving a pair of 2-0 teams - unfolds. Here's a quick breakdown of potentially the most influential elements.

Packers pass rush vs. Cowboys offensive line

Perhaps the biggest reason for Tony Romo's 309 passing yards and four touchdowns against the Packers last year was that he wasn't sacked, and he was rarely pressured. The Packers have to find a way to get to Romo this time around, and if not rack up some sacks, at least get some hits on him and disrupt the offense's timing.

"It's huge," said defensive end Aaron Kampman, who got the only three quarterback hits credited to the Green Bay defense against Romo last year in 30 pass attempts. "In any game, but particularly against the Cowboys, because they take so many shots down the field with their big play weapons, 81 (Terrell Owens) and 82 (Jason Witten) and (Patrick) Crayton. They've got a lot of targets out there."

The Packers sorely missed Johnny Jolly and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila in last year's game. Jolly, a key inside rusher, was on injured reserve by then, while Gbaja-Biamila missed the contest after injuring his ankle and knee the previous week, on Thanksgiving in Detroit. With 'KGB' at one end on passing downs opposite Kampman, and Jolly and swing tackle Cullen Jenkins on the inside, the Packers hope they can get consistent pressure on Romo.

Discussed much during the week is how much the Packers can or should blitz to achieve that goal. Both of the Cowboys' first two opponents, the Browns and Eagles, took their shots with the blitz, but Romo has yet to be sacked and the offense has put up 69 points in two games.

"It's a funny thing," said Romo in a conference call with Wisconsin reporters this week. "When you bring pressure, you have the ability to get minus plays and you have the ability to create turnovers and things of that nature. But at the same point, it gives the offense a little bit of time, if you're able to pick it up, to create a big play. There's a little bit of that game going on always."

The bottom line is getting to the quarterback effectively is easier said than done. It's worth noting that while Romo has not been sacked this year, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers has been sacked just once, and he blamed himself for holding the ball too long.

"You say you have to rush them, you have to pressure them," said NBC sports analyst John Madden, who will call the game with Al Michaels on Sunday night, in a conference call with reporters earlier this week. "Well, you have to do that to every quarterback, but getting to these guys and getting them to the ground is a very difficult thing."

Dynamos in the return game

In Week 1, Green Bay's Will Blackmon ran a punt back 76 yards for a touchdown against Minnesota. Then in Week 2, Dallas rookie Felix Jones returned a kickoff 98 yards for a score against Philadelphia. Both of those came in the season's first two Monday night games, and both young players are on a prime-time stage once again.

Throw in the fact that Dallas punt returner Adam Jones posted four touchdowns in that role while playing for Tennessee in 2005-06, and there's plenty for the coverage units of both teams to be concerned with.

If a big special teams play is going to factor into the outcome, there are plenty of candidates to make something happen.

Al Harris and/or Charles Woodson vs. Terrell Owens

Owens was a difference-maker in last year's meeting, catching seven passes for 156 yards and a touchdown. He had another TD bounce off his hands and into Harris' arms for an interception.

The Packers tried to match Harris on Owens, but the Cowboys foiled that strategy by constantly putting Owens in motion and preventing Harris from getting his trademark jams at the line of scrimmage.

What the Packers will do to counteract that, should the Cowboys motion Owens regularly again, remains to be seen. But it should help to have fellow corner Charles Woodson on the field as well. Woodson missed last year's game after injuring his toe in the Thanksgiving win over Detroit, and though he hasn't practiced the last two weeks with a different toe injury, he is expected to play.

So, will the Packers stick with the Harris vs. Owens matchup? Will they provide safety help? Will Harris pass Owens off to Woodson if he goes in motion, an option that wasn't available a year ago? It's all part of the chess match that will play out, and both teams are sure to have countermoves for one another.

"They're a man-to-man type of team," Romo said. "But, ... we don't always see what teams do on film all the time either."

Reinforced Dallas secondary vs. Green Bay's WRs

The Cowboys have added Jones and rookie Mike Jenkins as nickel and dime cornerbacks behind starters Terence Newman and Anthony Henry, which makes them better prepared than they were last year to deal with the Packers' multiple-wideout sets, even without safety Roy Williams, who is sidelined with a broken forearm.

{sportsad300}Meanwhile the Packers could have all five of their receivers healthy for the first time this year. James Jones missed Week 1 with a knee injury, while Ruvell Martin was out last week with a fractured finger. Martin is questionable again this week with the finger injury, but he has been participating fully in practice.

If everyone is healthy, the Packers can employ their "Big Five," a five-wide formation with all receivers. So far this season when the Packers have used that alignment, the fifth receiver has been tight end Donald Lee in the slot.

No doubt the Packers have studied what Philadelphia's offense did in Dallas last week, when quarterback Donovan McNabb was an efficient 25-of-37 for 281 yards with a TD and no interceptions. Rodgers has been the picture of efficiency in his first two NFL starts, with a quarterback rating of 117.8, and seven different Packers have caught passes in each of the first two games.


For all their success the first two weeks, the Packers and Cowboys are the two most penalized clubs in the league thus far. Not including declined penalties, the Packers have been flagged 20 times for 180 yards this season, while the Cowboys have 21 penalties for 190 yards.

The Packers recognized penalties as a trouble spot for them in prime-time games in 2007, committing 34 in three regular-season night games, including nine for 142 yards in Dallas last year. The Cowboys were flagged 10 times in that game, but for a more modest 65 yards.

Both teams want to clean up their act, and whichever one does so first might have a leg up on Sunday night.

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