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How Detroit must defend Aaron Rodgers; Cowboys' conundrum

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Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:

» League folks weigh in on the "rest vs. rust" debate facing the Cowboys and others.

» Could Eli Manning actually prevent the Giants from making a postseason run?

» How Steve Smith helped me become a better NFL scout.

But first, a look at the most important player in the game of the week ...

* * * * *

Uh-oh!

Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers have reeled off five straight wins behind the spectacular play of the two-time league MVP.

Not that we should be surprised by Rodgers' sizzling performance after he declared the Packers' could "run the table" following a Week 11 loss to Washington. The guy has a history of accurately calling his shots. Still, I didn't expect a struggling offense to completely flip the script heading down the stretch. I know Rodgers is a quarterbacking superhero, but I didn't know he had the ability to summon up these kinds of super powers on a whim.

Evidently, Rodgers can throw on his cape whenever necessary -- and he elected to show that to the football world starting in Week 12. Since that point, Rodgers has posted a 71.4 percent completion rate, a 11:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 119.8 passer rating. Those figures represent a significant increase in production from the first 10 games of the season (63.2 percent, 25:7 TD-to-INT ratio, 96.0 passer rating).

With Rodgers settling into a groove, the Packers' offense has regained its potency, as evidenced by Green Bay averaging 30.8 points an outing during the five-game winning streak. In addition, the Packers' receiving corps has started to find the paint consistently -- particularly Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams, who've combined for 24 TDs this season. Also factoring in Ty Montgomery's emergence as a credible RB1, the Packers' offense suddenly looks unstoppable heading into this Week 17 NFC North title tilt against the Detroit Lions.

But games aren't played on paper, and there is a formula for slowing the Packers. Let's take a look at what the Lions must do on Sunday night to slow down the league's hottest offense ...

1) Dare the Packers to run.

Despite the NFL shifting to a pass-happy league in recent years, defensive coordinators continue to make stopping the run a priority when crafting game plans. Against the Packers, the thought of loading up the box on early downs is a bad idea. Although Montgomery is averaging a robust 6.0 yards per carry, the hybrid threat (who has spent most of his NFL career as a wide receiver) is not a classic RB1 with the "grind it out" skills to punish a defense with a heavy workload. Sure, he racked up 162 rushing yards against Chicago in Week 15, but teams will concede yards to Montgomery if they can keep Rodgers in check.

Good defensive coaches focus on stopping the opponent's most dangerous players at all costs, so I would expect the Lions to make stopping Rodgers the top priority. Look for Detroit to stay in a Cover 2 shell (two deep safeties) and avoid dropping a safety into the box prior to the snap.

Interestingly, the Packers are at their best this season when they commit to running the football. According to NFL Research, the Packers are 6-0 when they pass on fewer than 60 percent of their offensive plays, compared to their 3-6 record when passing on more than 60 percent of their snaps.

In spite of those numbers, the Lions should take their chances and see if Mike McCarthy is disciplined enough to stick with the running game if Montgomery can't get loose early.

2) Take away the bombs and quicks.

You have to take away the big plays to have any chance of slowing down the Packers. Although Rodgers is one of the few quarterbacks patient enough to pick apart a defense with a "dink and dunk" strategy, he is arguably the best deep-ball passer in the league. He loves to push the ball down the field on traditional dropback plays or play-action concepts that challenge the discipline of defensive backs in coverage.

Rodgers has been on fire in the downfield passing game going back to the Week 11 defeat at Washington (when he threw for 351 yards and three touchdowns -- against zero interceptions -- in a losing effort). Looking at his numbers from the past six games, the 33-year-old QB is completing 44.8 percent of his passes traveling 20-plus air yards, gaining 16.2 yards per attempt with a 3:0 TD-to-INT ratio and a 126.0 passer rating. Those numbers are significantly higher than his figures in this area from the Packers' first nine games: 24.4 percent completion rate, 7.7 yards per attempt, 3:2 TD-to-INT ratio, 63.4 passer rating.

That's why I would expect the Lions to borrow parts of the game plans a few teams -- the 2016 Cowboys, 2015 Broncos and 2011 Giants (in the playoffs) -- have employed to slow down Green Bay's offense in the past. Those teams used a couple of man concepts (Cover 1-Man Free and Cover 2-Man) to eliminate the big plays and layups that Rodgers leans on in big games. The Cowboys successfully used these tactics in a surprising 30-16 win in Lambeau that exposed the vulnerabilities of Green Bay's offense. Their game plan wasn't much different than the man-heavy script Denver used in 2015 to suffocate the Packers' high-flying offense in a marquee showdown. Considering how the Giants also used Cover 2-Man to knock off the 15-1 Pack in the 2011 postseason, the blueprint is there for the Lions (and others) to follow.

Here's the problem ...

The Lions lack the personnel to live in man coverage -- especially if Darius Slay is unable to play (or significantly compromised) in Week 17. He is the only defender capable of matching up with Nelson all over the field -- particularly in the slot, where No. 87 has started to do damage over the past six games. If Slay is available, the Lions can throw caution to the wind and lean on these man tactics to enhance their chances of winning the NFC North.

3) Contain and plaster.

Whenever teams face Rodgers and the Packers, they must have a plan to deal with the veteran's organized chaos. The perennial Pro Bowler is a masterful improviser, yet he is always in lockstep with his pass catchers on scrambles.

Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film, Green Bay routinely generate its biggest gains when Rodgers plays sandlot football. Randall Cobb, Nelson and Adams have a knack for finding voids in coverage as Rodgers runs around behind the line of scrimmage. The Packers' scramble drill is arguably the best play in the playbook, and teams must have a plan to deal with chaos when it arises.

"You have to stay on your guys when Rodgers is running around," an AFC secondary coach told me. "They make the majority of the big plays on second-reaction throws, so your secondary has to be disciplined with their eyes in coverage."

From a tactical standpoint, the onus really falls on the defensive line to keep Rodgers confined to the pocket. Edge rushers have to avoid rushing beyond the depth of his drop to prevent him from escaping. In addition, the front line must continue to pursue from snap to whistle to prevent Rodgers from getting comfortable outside of the pocket. This relentless pursuit eventually will wear out the Lions' 300-pound rushers, but they will need to expend maximum effort to have any chance of disrupting Rodgers' rhythm as an "off the cuff" playmaker.

In the secondary, the defensive backs must "plaster" their guys when No. 12 leaves the pocket. Defenders must latch onto their assigned receivers when they break off their routes to flow to the sideline from the middle of the field or take off up the field when Rodgers flees the pocket. We've seen countless examples of defenders losing their receivers during the Packers' winning streak, but the Lions can't afford to give up a cheap touchdown due to a blown assignment during a scramble drill.

At the end of the day, the Lions might not have enough weaponry to execute the game plan others have used successfully. They've been unable to consistently generate a pass rush for most of the season, as evidenced by their paltry sack total (25, tied for 29th in the NFL). Consequently, the Lions are allowing a 72.9 percent completion rate (easily the worst mark in the NFL) and are unable to affect the quarterback in the pocket. While anything is possible in a winner-take-all bout, the Lions are facing an uphill battle against a red-hot quarterback.

ASK THE LEAGUE: Should the Cowboys rest their stars or not?

The Dallas Cowboys have secured the No. 1 seed in the NFC, which guarantees a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. With a pair of rookies leading the way at quarterback and running back, there has been some discussion as to whether the team should play or rest the youngsters in a "meaningless" game against the Philadelphia Eagles.

With the "rest vs. rust" debate being waged in media circles, I thought I'd reach out to some of my NFL connections to see how they would handle this issue if they were in charge of the Cowboys. Here's what I asked them, followed by their responses:

If you're the Cowboys and you have everything wrapped up, do you rest Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott in Week 17? If so, do you play Tony Romo or Mark Sanchez at quarterback?

AFC vice president of player of personnel: "I think you have to give the players the impression that we aren't going to take our foot off the gas pedal. You want them to prepare exactly the same as if they are going to play the whole game without telling them that they may only play in the first half or just a few series. Any player can get hurt in any NFL game, but my feeling is that you don't let Dak and Zeke take a mental break and fall into the trap of thinking that they won't play. If not, it becomes almost three weeks of inactivity when you add Week 17 to a bye week before finally the Divisional Round.

"On the flip side, there is nothing that really matters this time of year except optimum health going into playoffs. I could see letting those guys get a good lather in Week 17, then [pulling] them out of the game when you feel like you have maintained your rhythm as a team."

AFC pro personnel assistant: "That's a tough one, because they would have two weeks off without play. You worry about the offensive rhythm that they've built to this point. I would try to work them about 20 or so plays during the game. As far as the quarterback situation, I would prep Sanchez to play. I think it would be disrespectful for Romo to get thrown into that situation. Romo really has nothing to gain, while Sanchez would be auditioning for a job next year."

AFC assistant coach: "I would rest the young guys and play Sanchez."

AFC senior personnel executive: "I would sit Dak and Zeke, but entertain the possibility of keeping Zeke in the game if he is close to the [rookie] rushing record. I would play Sanchez and Romo, since neither has had many reps this season."

MY TAKE

Despite sitting in the catbird seat as the No. 1 seed in the NFC, Jason Garrett has to make some difficult decisions to help his team make it Super Bowl LI. The Cowboys' ultra-cool leader must determine whether maintaining the team's momentum and rhythm is more important than ensuring a healthy lineup when the team takes the field in the Divisional Round. Although there are no guarantees in football, the Cowboys have looked like an unstoppable force when they've had all their weapons on the field this season. On offense, in particular, the nucleus of Prescott, Elliott, Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, Jason Witten and the best O-line in football has keyed a remarkable run to the league's best record.

With that in mind, I believe Garrett has a bit of a dilemma when deciding how to approach the Cowboys' Week 17 matchup against the Eagles. While you want to make sure that the offense is clicking on all cylinders heading into the playoffs, you would hate to lose one of your key contributors to injury in a game that won't alter your seeding in the tournament. We've seen the playoff fortunes of the Oakland Raiders fall by the wayside with the loss of Derek Carr to a broken leg in Week 16, so I would proceed with extreme caution in the regular-season finale. I would treat the game like a preseason contest, with my top guys (Dak, Zeke, Dez and Witten) getting about a quarter of action. The 46-man roster prevents the team from making wholesale substitutions, but I would definitely rest my core players to prevent an injury from altering our playoff chances.

As far as the quarterback situation, I would play Sanchez extensively in this game because I wouldn't want to create any potential controversy by playing Romo. I know the trolls are waiting for Romo to play well to put a bigger scope on Dak's play heading into the tournament. While I'm not afraid of press conference debate or banter, I would rather not deal with that while prepping a young team for a playoff run. According to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport, the loose plan is to give Prescott and Romo a drive or two each before handing the ball over to Sanchez. That goes against what I would do.

From a business standpoint, I wouldn't trot Romo onto the field because I would hate to see a poor performance affect his trade value in the offseason. The veteran still carries some cachet as a short-term solution, and I'd want to get maximum value in any deal. If Romo delivers a dud or suffers a minor injury in Week 17, it makes it harder to command top dollar for the fragile veteran.

NEXT GEN STATS: Eli Manning struggling mightily, especially downfield

The New York Giants have been widely touted as a dark-horse contender in the NFC due to the presence of a resurgent defense, a dominant playmaker at wide receiver and a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback. While I could see the G-Men making another title push behind the defense and Odell Beckham Jr.'s spectacular play, the Giants won't truly make a run at the Lombardi until Eli Manning fixes his game.

I know it's almost blasphemous to throw shade on the two-time Super Bowl MVP, but let's be real -- he hasn't played well this season.

Now, I know the numbers aren't bad, with Manning posting a 63.0 percent completion rate, a 26:16 TD-to-INT ratio and an 86.2 passer rating, but shouldn't we expect more from a veteran franchise quarterback who is routinely called an elite player? We customarily give Manning a hall pass when he underperforms in the regular season. That's the only way to explain why there hasn't been any outrage over Manning's six multi-interception games this season (most in the NFL), which is a part of his legacy as a turnover machine (59 career multi-INT games -- seven more than any other player since Eli entered the league in 2004).

If that's not enough, the Giants' success hinges on Eli's ability to take care of the ball, as evidenced by the team's 6-5 record this season when he has at least one turnover, compared to their 4-0 mark when he doesn't have a giveaway. Considering the impact of turnovers on the outcome of games, particularly in the postseason, Manning's propensity for giving the ball away should be a major concern for Giants fans and coaches.

Speaking of concerns, I'm also worried about Manning's efficiency as a passer from the pocket. His play has fallen off dramatically in December, with a 76.1 passer rating in Weeks 13 through 16, after he posted a 90.1 mark during the first 12 weeks of the season. With the offense's performance closely tied to Manning's play, the Giants haven't reached 20 points in any of their last four games, looking nothing like the high-powered offense many expected prior to the season.

That's why the Giants must fix their veteran quarterback prior to the tournament. Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film, I was blown away by Manning's inability to connect on layups at short and intermediate distances. He routinely misfired on the team's staple quick-game concepts (slant/flat, go/stick) despite having three dynamic catch-and-run playmakers at his disposal. Sterling Shepard, Victor Cruz and OBJ are exceptional route runners with a variety of slippery releases that make them tough to guard at the line of scrimmage. With each guy capable of winning his one-on-one battles at the line, Manning should be able to catch, rock and fire to open receivers against man or zone coverage.

While Manning's ineffectiveness as a "dink and dunk" passer is troubling, I believe his inability to push the ball down the field is an even bigger issue. Manning ranks last in several downfield passing categories over the past five games. Since Week 12, Manning has completed just 22.2 percent of his passes traveling 15-plus air yards (8 of 36 attempts), with a 0:3 TD-to-INT ratio and a 17.6 passer rating. Compare that to his production from the first 10 games of the season in this area: 37.5 percent completion rate, 7:5 TD-to-INT ratio, 80.3 passer rating. Manning desperately needs to find his groove in Week 17.

I pored over the tape from each of the Giants' regular-season games, trying to find a performance that would reveal some strategies coach Ben McAdoo could lean on to help his veteran quarterback end his slump. And really, I only discovered one efficient performance that fit the bill. Against the Cowboys all the way back in in Week 1, Manning completed 67.9 of his passes and finished with a 3:1 TD-to-INT ratio and a 110.3 passer rating in a close win. Studying that game, Manning wasn't at his best, but he did a good job of getting the ball to Cruz and OBJ on rhythm throws. He leaned on his playmakers to deliver splash plays, and they responded in splendid fashion when he connected with them on a variety of slants, hitches, seams and post-corners -- routes that allowed Manning to fire away without hesitation.

At a time when Giants fans are suggesting their team should rest starters to ensure good health in the playoffs, I believe the G-Men must focus their efforts on getting their QB1 on track. If Manning is going to lead Big Blue to the promised land, he needs to start showing his teammates he still has the magic that made him a two-time Super Bowl MVP.

STEVE SMITH: What he taught me about scouting wide receivers.

When Steve Smith hinted that he might be playing his last NFL game in Week 17, the football world began the coronation of an illustrious career that could end in a Hall of Fame enshrinement.

Why not?

Smith will leave the game with an impressive résumé that, heading into Week 17, included 14,697 receiving yards (seventh all-time), 1,028 receptions (12th) and 81 receiving touchdowns (tied for 25th). If that's not enough, in 2005, he became one of only three receivers -- including Jerry Rice (1990) and Sterling Sharpe (1992) -- to earn the receiving "Triple Crown," leading the NFL in receptions (103), receiving yards (1,563) and receiving touchdowns (12). Throw in eight 1,000-yard seasons, five Pro Bowl berths and a pair of All-Pro nods, and it's clear that Smith has created quite a legacy as one of the most explosive pass catchers in NFL history.

From a personal standpoint, Smith will always be the standard I use when projecting a young receiver's potential as a pro. When I got into the scouting business as an area scout for the Seattle Seahawks in 2000, I covered the Mountain West Conference as part of my territory, and the University of Utah fell on my list of schools. Thus, I had a chance to evaluate Smith during his final season with the Utes.

Measuring 5-foot-9 and 184 pounds with sub-4.4 speed and exceptional short-area quickness, Smith averaged 21.2 yards per catch for the Utes as their designated big-play receiver. He torched opponents on vertical routes, but he also displayed fantastic skills as a catch-and-run specialist on the perimeter. He had a knack for making defenders miss in traffic, which made sense, given his success as a punt returner. (Smith finished his collegiate career with a punt-return average of 11.9 yards and four total return touchdowns.) Based on his speed and production as a deep-ball threat/return specialist, I slapped a fourth-round grade (developmental prospect/special teams standout) on Smith at the end of the college season.

I continued to give Smith solid marks as a developmental prospect after watching him dominate the college all-star game circuit (the Blue-Gray Game, Hula Bowl and East-West Shrine Game) as a feisty playmaker with explosive return skills and big-play ability. He not only made his mark in games, but he owned defenders in one-on-one and team drills. With Smith looking like a natural as a returner, I thought he could carve out a nice career as a specialist until he could refine his game enough to be a productive WR3 early in his career.

To be honest, my projections were based heavily on Smith's skills as a punt returner. As a young scout, I was encouraged to find receivers with punt-return experience in their backgrounds because then-Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren and offensive coordinator Gil Haskell believed ex-returners possessed the toughness and running skills to succeed as playmakers on the perimeter in a pro-style passing game that placed a significant emphasis on "YAC" (yards after catch).

This philosophy was based on their experiences with the San Francisco 49ers (Holmgren coached Jerry Rice and John Taylor as the team's QB coach/offensive coordinator in late 1980s/early 1990s) and Los Angeles Rams (Haskell worked with Henry Ellard as the team's special teams coach in 1980s), as well as their collective experience with the Green Bay Packers in the 1990s developing the likes of Robert Brooks, Antonio Freeman and others who became productive wide receivers after entering the league as part-time return specialists. (I played under Holmgren and Haskell during parts of the 1995, '96 and '97 seasons as a WR/DB/KR.)

We didn't select Smith in the 2001 NFL Draft, partially due to concerns about his size (the Seahawks preferred "big" receivers or pass catchers that measured 5-foot-10 or taller) on the perimeter, but I paid close attention to his growth as a player. He immediately garnered Pro Bowl honors as a rookie returner for the Carolina Panthers on the strength of three return scores (two kick returns and a punt return).

In 2003, I got a chance to witness Smith's development first-hand when I joined the Panthers as an area scout. I watched Smith as a WR2 opposite Muhsin Muhammad in a run-heavy offense that featured the diminutive pass catcher as a vertical threat. At the time, he ran a small portion of the route tree (go route, post route, dig, comeback and quicks), but I was immediately impressed with his combination of speed, quickness and burst. It is uncommon to find a speed receiver with the balance, body control and agility to get in and out of breaks as a polished route runner. Smith was one of the few receivers who could roll into cuts or make hard plants to separate from defenders. This allowed him to incorporate a variety of creative releases and stems in his routes to consistently get open against tight coverage.

While Smith's creativity needed to be harnessed to keep him on the same page as the quarterback, he became a matchup problem as a WR2. This was evident during the Panthers' 2003 Super Bowl run, when Smith delivered a number of big plays, including his 69-yard game-winning touchdown against the Rams in the NFC Divisional Round.

Aside from Smith's creativity and explosiveness, I was impressed with his ability to play above the rim as an undersized receiver. He routinely won 50-50 balls down the field against defenders along the boundary on back-shoulder fades. The knock against using smaller receivers as WR1s typically involved their inability to make plays in traffic; Smith's athleticism and leaping ability (with a 38.5-inch vertical) allowed him to function at a high level as the primary target.

Interestingly, Smith finally got his chance to be a No. 1 receiver in 2005 after bouncing back from a devastating leg injury the previous season and watching Muhammad depart Carolina as a free agent. He surprised most observers inside and outside of the building with his ability to dominate on the perimeter as a "one-man show" in the passing game. Without a credible threat on the backside, Smith captured the "Triple Crown" and sparked the team's run to the NFC Championship Game.

By definition, WR1s must be able to put up big numbers against double coverage, and Smith has spent the latter part of his career defeating various brackets and rolled coverage. This is when I discovered elite receivers should be unstoppable -- there is no excuse for them to disappear for extended periods. Smith excelled despite suspect quarterback play and the lack of a stellar supporting cast on the perimeter. (Yes, I know Jake Delhomme was a Pro Bowl selectee for the 2005 season, but let's be real: He wasn't ever considered an elite QB in league circles.)

Most impressively, Smith continued to get better as an older player, despite losing some of his trademark speed and explosiveness. He learned how to control his pace and tempo during routes, and he became a more detailed route runner as he evolved into a possession receiver during his mid-30s. On the surface, this doesn't appear to be a major development, but I can assure you that most "speed" receivers are unable to sustain a high level of play when their fastball disappears. It's hard for athletic freaks to master the nuances of route running when they've spent the majority of their careers simply running past defenders utilizing their speed and explosiveness.

That's why Smith's evolution as a receiver provides a bit of a blueprint on how to evaluate and develop young receivers. Scouts must look beyond the measurables and evaluate the player's total game when assessing talent. Moreover, evaluators should pay closer attention to how a player approaches practice when they conduct a school visit or check out veterans in training camp. Smith worked harder than any receiver on the field, and he treated each rep as a game-like competition, particularly one-on-ones and team drills.

Now, I have to acknowledge Smith's missteps as a teammate during his time with the Panthers (Smith was suspended on multiple occasions for altercations with teammates) because they are an important part of his journey. But his maturation since those incidents shows scouts that guys are capable of changing, given time and support. Although coaches love players who exhibit passion and energy on the field, they must help red-line players learn how to keep their emotions in check in critical moments. As Smith evolved throughout his time with the Panthers and Ravens, he learned how to harness his emotions and become the kind of leader every team needs.

With Smith's development as a playmaker and leader embedded in my mind, I think I have a greater appreciation for what to look for in a championship player.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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