Since 2007, no team in the NFL has been more productive when it comes to sacking the opposing quarterback than the Dallas Cowboys, and that effort is led once again this year by the perennial Pro Bowler Ware.
Ware ranks tied for second in the NFL this season (behind only Green Bay's Clay Matthews' 9.5) with eight sacks in seven games. Since he entered the league in 2005 as a first-round pick out of Troy, Ware has posted more sacks (72.5) than any other player in the NFL over that span, while ranking tied for second in forced fumbles (22) behind only Indianapolis defensive end Robert Mathis. In 2008, he recorded a league-leading 20 sacks, and he's one of only seven players since 1982 to hit the 20-sack plateau.
"Obviously he's got that exceptional quickness," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "He is relentless, plays very hard, and has really good balance. He can give you the speed rush. He's got enough power where he can push you back if you're not playing low enough and if you don't get a good enough punch.
"He's got some slipperiness to him, he can spin on you. He's kind of got the full complement of moves. He's got a little bit of everything."
The Packers have seen Ware's wide array of skills firsthand, with this Sunday being the fourth consecutive season that the teams have met. In the three games from 2007-09, Ware registered four sacks and eight pressures against Green Bay, with two of those sacks coming in last November's meeting at Lambeau Field in the Packers' 17-7 win.
Both of Ware's sacks in the '09 meeting came when he was lined up on the right side, but neither of them came against left tackle Chad Clifton. On the first sack in the second quarter, tight end Spencer Havner went in motion and picked Ware up as quarterback Aaron Rodgers stepped up in the pocket, but Ware quickly fought off Havner to get to Rodgers. On the second one in the third quarter, Havner was lined up in the right side of the backfield, and wasn't able to get across quick enough to pick up Ware as he came through largely untouched to bring down Rodgers.
In last year's meeting, the veteran Clifton was manning the left-tackle spot with then-rookie T.J. Lang getting his first and only career start at right tackle in place of an injured Mark Tauscher. Once again it will be a rookie opening at right tackle for Green Bay, with Bryan Bulaga expected to get his fifth straight start in place of an injured Tauscher. Bulaga said the Cowboys tend to have Ware flip sides throughout the game, so he expects to be matched up with him some on Sunday.
"They usually line him up away from the tight end in normal down-and-distances," Philbin said. "Then they are not afraid to put him in a position if they feel like they have a favorable matchup. He is not totally 'amphibious' as we like to say, but he moves around pretty good."
The Packers come into Sunday's game with Dallas as a much-improved line compared to last season when it comes to sack numbers. Through the first eight games last season, Green Bay had allowed a league-high 37 sacks. After they gave up four to Dallas in Week 10, the offensive line allowed just nine sacks of Rodgers in the final seven games.
Through eight games this year, Green Bay's offense ranks tied for No. 18 in the league in sacks allowed with 16, but nine of those came in a two-game stretch at Washington and vs. Miami in Weeks 5-6. The Packers have not allowed a sack in three games, including the shutout of the Vikings two weeks ago.
One contributing factor has been the continuity that the line has been able to develop over the first half of the season, something it wasn't able to do in 2009. Four of the five starting offensive lineman have started every game this season, with right tackle being the only spot that has had any change. Tauscher opened the first four games there this season, with Bulaga taking over the last four since the veteran injured his shoulder vs. Detroit. That makes only two different starting combinations on the line at the midway point of the season, compared to five in the first half of '09 when injuries played a large role in the shuffling along the line.
"The last couple of years it seemed like the injury bug bit us a little bit," Philbin said. "That group, knock on wood, hasn't been hit too, too hard. As you mentioned, Mark has had some issues, but I think it helps. We've got a rookie playing, so you know there are somewhat expected growing pains. I think his performance has gotten better as the weeks have gone on. Hopefully we can hit our stride in that particular group as well as the entire unit here starting Sunday.
"We'd like to be at about 1½ (sacks allowed per game). In the old days we used to want to be at one or under (per game). Unfortunately, based on where we have been, we had to kind of reshape that a little. I think we're making good progress. We're certainly well ahead of (last year)."
While protecting Rodgers was the biggest concern in the first half of '09, this year the offense's biggest issue has been converting on third down. Green Bay currently ranks No. 26 in the league on third down, converting just 35.1 percent of the time, a noticeable drop from last year's 47.0 percent mark that was good for No. 3 in the NFL.
Philbin said although the sack numbers have improved, that can sometimes be deceiving, with protection breakdowns that cause Rodgers to be pressured contributing to drives stalling as much as sacks do.
"We have had some protection issues," Philbin said. "We had an issue in the game with the Jets where we didn't get a blitz adjustment. We didn't get sacked, but we got chased out of the pocket and had to throw the ball away and punt the ball. Those are things we still feel like on third down, our protection needs to improve a little bit."
The challenge now for the Packers is to find a rhythm offensively with more sustained drives, and preventing Ware from being a disruption on Sunday night would be a good start toward accomplishing that.
"He is a guy that you are concerned about when you are game-planning because he has that much ability and he is productive," Philbin said. "He plays hard. On their side of the ball, when they are playing the Green Bay Packers they want to devise plans where they cannot get beat by our best players. So we spend time thinking about, 'OK, this guy can change the game. He's kind of got it all.' He'll keep you up at night, no question."
Additional coverage – Nov. 4